Should there be a standard user interface for cars?

Jason Torchinsky of Jalopnik says: "I have a post up that I though BB people may be interested in, about if it makes sense to standardize UI for cars -- most of our car-folk readers are against it, but I think a more general audience might feel differently."

1. Common Controls

Really, we're just about at a standard for these, but not quite. It's being so close but not quite there that makes this category so annoying. Since I drive a good number of different cars as part of my work, I encounter many, many different dashboard and control layouts. It's not really a big deal to adapt to a new car's controls, but it's not entirely seamless, either.

For example, I'll sometimes drive off in an unfamiliar car, and a minute or so into my trip realize I need to defrost/defog the rear window. So I can, you know, see. This particular act is almost always confounding — the rear window defogger/defroster is by far the most randomly placed control in all of motordom. Sometimes it's snuggled up with the HVAC controls, all indistinguishable from the windshield defogger, with its magic rising snakes icon. Sometimes it's over on the left, near where the mirror controls sometimes are, sometimes it's stuck on the center console, and I've even owned a car where it was an unmarked switch under the dash. Nobody has any idea where to put the damn thing. From what I can tell, where they end up placing it seems to be dictated by wherever the guy who realized they forgot it slapped it on.

This isn't the end of the world, but it's a pain. And, potentially dangerous, since it directly affects the driver's ability to see around themselves. It's also unnecessary — this is a feature that has been on cars since the late '60s. You'd think 50 years or so would be plenty of time to have everyone agree where to stick it.

And that's just one control; aside from locked-down standards (pedals, indicator switch, wheel, manual shift pattern basics) almost everything else can vary wildly. Some variants are company-wide (Japanese firms tend to prefer light controls on a stalk-end, Germans seem to prefer dash controls) while some (mirror controls, windows, locks, etc.) vary wildly from car-to-car.

The question is, why doesn't everyone agree to where the basic controls (which should include basic radio and HVAC controls) should be? It's not like all these companies are like Citröen in the '60s, trying out innovative and new instrument panel designs— it's almost always the same basic methods, with just the locations frustratingly mixed around. Does anyone like power window controls in between the seats?

I don't want to stifle innovation, and I certainly don't want a bunch of boring dashboards that look the same. There's still plenty that can be done to give a car character even if the A/C controls, the wipers, the seat adjustment controls are all in essentially the same place. Distinctive dashes like the Mini's dinner-plate sized gauge cluster are still fine, as long as anyone can hop in the car and know where to find almost everything without hunting around.

Should there be a standard user interface for cars?


    1.  I’m not firmly entrenched on either side of this debate, but what’s the biggest innovation in button placement in the last 10 or so years? Is there some core part of the interface that we could agree to standardize? Maybe just the safety equipment (i.e., turn signals, headlights, defrosters, horn, hazard lights, etc) and leave the climate and entertainment up to manufacturers (i.e., HVAC, radio, seat warmers).

        1. Good point! Those aren’t exactly safety related though. The cruise control can be overridden at all times with the foot pedals. And in the case of the radio the steering wheel controls are purely redundant. Do you think it’s reasonable to standardize just the location of the safety related controls?

      1. I have a Honda Insight 2, and for all the complaining people do about the thing, it took me about 5 minutes to get used to the controls.  It helped that my wife already had a CR-V, but the climate control “radial menu” controls along with a similar design on the radio blew my mind.

        I don’t like the hazard lights placement, but don’t agree that we need to standardize this.  

        1. Honda Fit is similarly laid out, with hazard light switch apparently part of the radio group. FM/AM/CD/Hazards…

      2. I didn’t say that there were big innovations in the last ten years . I’m talking about the future. And maybe people should just take two minutes in an unfamiliar car to orient themselves.

  1. Let me just get my gripe in early here:

    I used a car with a screen for the environmental and radio controls. It was awful.

    If I wanted to adjust the temp or fan speed in the car I had to find the button to get the virtual sliders up, then use a button to slide them up or down, looking at them to see where they were.

    Same thing with radio volume.

    Physical knobs and sliders have been around for a long time for a number of reasons. One of which is you can find them and operate them from feel alone, which means you do not have to take your eyes off the road.

    Hopefully whoever designed the UI for the car I drove was cursed with having to use it and learned a lesson.

  2. Worst is when switching from one brand to another swaps the indicator stalk with the wiper stalk. Grr! I say. GRRRR!

    1. Yeah my wife’s Jetta is like that. VW went to a lot of trouble to move the steering wheel and associated controls to the right side of the car, but they couldn’t move the indicator stalk?

      1. This is heinously slack. Given all the engineering involved in designing a car for both left and right-hand drive, ensuring the wiper/indicator stalks can simply be rotated 180° around the steering column should be pretty simple.

        But nooo. Dozens of car companies commit this ridiculous oversight, basically saying to entire markets, ‘get fucked; we couldn’t be arsed spending another $0.50 per car to make it right for you guys.’

        Although, given the fact this idiocy persists, apparently the majority of punters just suck it up. As far as I’m concerned, this is a blatant deal-breaker. Aside from making driving more of a hassle, what does it say about a company’s attention to detail, if they commit this huge blunder right in front of my face? What about the less obvious stuff?

    2. I find myself in the car, in the rain about once every two or three years. I end up pulling over and trying to remember where all those wet planet functions are controlled from.

  3. So this guy is mad that he has to fumble around for the defroster as he’s undulating down the road in two thousand pounds of metal?

    How about instead of doing that, he spends 30 seconds prior to starting the engine to study the controls? There is in fact a standard iconography that most cars use these days, so all it should take is a glance (while the car is stationary and not a life ending threat to anything it runs in to) to figure out where everything is. 

    I don’t think it’s the job of the auto manufacturers to design against willful ignorance. This sounds more like a failure in driver education if there’s a serious issue with people entering traffic not knowing how to operate the machine they’re sitting in.

    1. I agree that people should be familiarizing themselves with a vehicle before attempting to drive it. But wouldn’t it be *best* if people instinctively knew where to look for this stuff though, so that they could react quickly in an emergency?

      “This sounds more like a failure in driver education…”
      If there were standard locations for this stuff, those locations could be part of driver’s education courses. We’d be able to start holding people accountable for knowing where this stuff is before getting on the road.

      1. I would hazard a guess that more accidents are the result of cellphone use than hunting for the blinkers.

    2. Because people will forget to do that. There’s no good reason it should differ from car to car any more than the pedals or steering wheel.

      Of course we should design against willful ignorance. The alternative is to allow for collisions which we can prevent.

      1. Down that road lies the possibility that auto manufacturers are responsible for accidents caused by a driver losing control of the car.. which is a terrible idea to consider.

        Driving a car carries a serious responsibility to operate it in a safe manner and if that requires spending 5 minutes to study the controls, so be it.  If people can’t be arsed to familiarize themselves with the machine they’re using, they shouldn’t be allowed out on the road at all.

        1. The problem is that people do become familiar with controls, and then are subject to different controls in a different car. What used to be done by rote now creates confusion, and then conscious effort to get right. You are saying people should be mindful of controls, but the whole point is that if controls are done right you shouldn’t be minding them and instead concentrate on important things, like driving.

          For example, in GM cars, bigger bars on the intermittent wipers means longer gap between brushes. In Ford, it’s the opposite. Of course I know the difference if you ask me, but if I’m in my new Ford I keep switching it GM style, get confused at the result, and then have to switch my mind from the road to what I should be doing about the wipers.

        2. They could design the safest possible car, or they could design a pretty safe car and blame the owner for any problems.  They choose the latter, and you think that’s a good idea.

          Did I miss anything there?

  4. Brings to mind the time I rented a car at Dublin airport in December.  I had never used electric windows before but found the button to roll down the windows so that I could feed in the car park ticket. But where is the button to roll the windows up?. I have to tell you its cold in Dublin and I was driving down the freeway at 100km/h. Fingers freezing, pulling and pushing at random lumps of plastic.

    Eventually I realised that you can pull the buttons up, which rolls the windows up. It makes sense geometrically but I had never seen a button do that.

  5. Yes! I’ve been thinking this for months. I don’t own a car but make occasional use of car-sharing (Zipcar, car2go, Hertz On Demand) and traditional car rentals. And every time, I have to re-learn where all the buttons are.

    I agree that the rear defroster is one of the worst things to try to find. Another is the button to open the flap in order to refuel the car. I always end up popping the trunk, the hood, etc. before I manage to find the right lever. And for what purpose?

    1. This has been my major beef about car-sharing.  You get in, you check around and *think* you know what you’re doing.  Then it almost never fails that something like the rear defroster/defogger is needed or the controls for the headlights (both to turn them fully on and bright/dim) or windshield wiper speed, etc.  

      I could see *needing* the manual if I was trying to decode something bizarre like what does this particular error code mean?  Is it serious or is it one of those that’s just telling someone it’s time to start thinking the whatever mile tune-up/oil change?  But the manual shouldn’t be *needed* for basic controls.  Those are things we should be able to find upon getting into the car or, if necessary, while driving.  If you *need* the manual to find basic controls, it’s a sign that the dash board is disorganized and/or too complex.

  6. The basic controls *are* already in one place.  Wheel at the front (and it’s virtually always a wheel), pedals (two or three, depending on your religion) at the bottom, always in the same order.  Speedometer so that you can see at.

    Everything else is *sugar*, not basics. 

    Oh noes, the horror of looking at the controls of a unfamilar car! I bet most people lose at least a hour of their live because of this. 

    While we are at it: Can we agree on a standard  for websites? I get easily confused by the different colors and fonts.

    1. An example I read about recently is the Start buttons on some cars. Some versions will kill the engine when the button is pressed and held, others will not. In an emergency a passenger may assume a particular behaviour.

      1. Wipers yes, defroster no.

        If you can’t see out you can take 30 seconds to clear the windows before you roll out.

        Besides turn signals have been around for 50+ years and very few people even seem to know what they are.

        1. Well, yes on the the defroster because it can help keep the windows from refrosting/fogging up, which can happen even after I’ve scraped the windows clear once.

    2. Where I live, you could be unconscious within 60 seconds and dead in five minutes if you can’t find the air conditioning.

  7. I remember an episode of Top Gear where Jeremy Clarkson offered cash to anyone who could open the door and start the engine of a TVR within a minute.

  8. Car design is much more Jobs than than ISO, if you know what I mean. The first-sale margin on most cars is very small or negative to the builder, but over the life of the vehicle they will reap a substantial return on high-margin parts and services. The carmakers hate standardization of any sort for the same reason that Apple resists adopting miniUSB or any other non-proprietary: their production scale allows them to make lots of money from such sui generisity.

    If you want to break their model you will have to give them a new one. Do you have one? Then please just sign the check and I’ll release some more endorphins.

    1. Glib nonsense. Perhaps that’s the case for dealers, but auto manufacturers make their money and stake their reputation on new car sales.

      1. Well, that just pushes the embedded interest one step down the line.

        And hey, at least I bothered to be glib.

    2. The purpose of gov’t regulations is to make companies in a capitalist system do things that are in the public interest like disposing of toxic waste in a safe way or putting seat belts in cars as standard, even if those actions don’t align with the company’s bottom line. The pertinent questions are then:
      1) What would be the economic impact of a mandate to put some of the core safety-related equipment in standardized locations?
      2) Would this result in fewer crashes?

      1. I think your description of the purpose of regulation is a bit limited. I’m not sure how to describe regulation more generally than as the administrative exercise of government authority, which sounds a lot less friendly than your version (though I like your version a lot).

        My concern is this: at large scales (the economic activity of 300 million people, for example) the effect of a particular rule can attenuate from its intent and lead to unforeseen (and often unforseeable) outcomes. In such cases I would prefer to allow the legal system to serve as a kind of triage by which the most intractable issues are identified as civil torts before they are subjected to regulation.

        I’m sympathetic to the “wouldn’t it be nice” intent of Mr Torchinsky’s piece and I’m not against regulation in principle. I just think the operation of interlocking costs, benefits, and incentives at such a distant scale is so complex as to defy our best intentions. Government is our tool of last resort, and if we weaken it through incautious application of its authority we will be made to suffer.

        1. We have a lot to win on the other hand if the important stuff gets standarized. This could be set to a point far enough in the future to allow the industry to adopt it and still use the latitude in the specs to make the design look different between the different brands. Too many times i have had to get into a car model that i never had driven before and having to ask the now fairly drunk carowner where the fuck the knobs, buttons etc. was and how to find the defroster and fan settings so that i could see the road.  It’s a wonder that i have managed to stay on the road at times when trying to do this in heavy rain or snowfall after the carowner had rang up at 2.30 AM and told me to “get started, the keys are in the car” and come and get a bunch of people at a party miles away when he or she should have made other arrangements for getting home. I can’t se how this would make the cars more expensive if the manufacturers don’t try to make us believe that we should pay more when it actually should cost less to have more standarized designs in production. I know how this works, as i have worked at a car factory and have several friends in the design, testing etc. departments there. Lots of bull sessions have been had when this have been discussed and people have had a chance to weather their pet peeves in the different approaches of dashboard design in modern cars. I still hate Citroen and a couple of others that tends to change the layouts so often that i have to read through the manual to actually find out where the knob for this or that is in This car. SAAB, R.I.P. was quite good over the years at placing everything where you could find it at the first try, even at night… :-)

  9. I feel like all the fragmentation on the touch screen interfaces is a bad thing.  But, I have an easy, cheap solution.  All we need is a screen cloner for our smartphones.  Then, we’d connect via Bluetooth to the car, and the touchscreen would present us with the screen from our phone.  I already know my phone’s interface, and how to use maps/navigation, etc.  And, my phone is always up-to-date.  

    1.  And this would actually Help you to drive safe in heavy traffic? Bwahahahaha! I want to watch you do that; at a safe distance, in the dark! I hope that you have a good insurance package, because you damn sure are gonna need it… :-]

      1. I didn’t say it would be safer in heavy traffic.  I said I already know how to use the interface to control music, navigation, etc.  Why duplicate those things in the car’s electronics?  

        I prefer manual controls for heating, cooling, volume, etc. 

  10. Be thankful we have the standards we do.  clutch, brake, gas steering wheel,  a few variations of the H shift pattern.

  11. One thing that needs to go…Touch-screen controls for every damned thing. Especially touch-screens that require you to navigate through multiple screens just to adjust temperature or change a channel.

    The cockpit of a car is a case study as to why tactile controls (buttons, switches, etc.) are superior to controls that require you to take your eyes off the job at hand (driving) and watch a screen.

    1. This is one of the few cases where I actually feel strongly that someone should jump in with some preemptive legislation. At least for the core safety-related controls it’s absolutely key to be able to operate them without looking and to easily tell that you’ve successfully engaged or disengaged them.

  12. Super pet peeve! I have thought about this a lot. I don’t have a personal car and therefore drive lots of different kinds of cars (my partner’s, rentals, the occasional semi-luxury). I despise non-standard interfaces with a passion. If I can’t figure out how to operate the wiper in 10 seconds (it doesn’t work when I push the stalk up? Or down? Or forward? Or back? WTF!!), your car interface is problematic. It’s not rocket science to put the buttons in approximately the same place and make them do the same thing, and it would definitely increase safety. Expecting the average user to spend 45 minutes with a manual before pulling out of the driveway is completely ridiculous when about 10 minutes of thought put into industrial design would solve the problem permanently. 

    I’ll even go one more step: how annoying is it that they can’t even standardize which side the gas cap is on? I hate having to get out of the car and look every time I forget. Also causes unnecessary havoc at the pumps — wouldn’t it be so much easier if everyone entered and exited the lane in the same fashion?

    1. I worked in air traffic control for 13 years and I have seen some horrible user interfaces. I once saw a UI designer design a window which I liked. It had six sliders and a close button. Very nice and to the point but the bulk of them were monstrosities with 48 buttons each opening a different popup with the contents of each button depending on the state of the other buttons or something. I keep saying to the designers do less, do less, do less and then what do you know they do more.

      1.  Thats because they get a bigger hard-on the more complicated and fucked-up the UI gets. And, of course, they would probably be shunned by their peers who get to be paid to teach users of the new sustems… ;-)

  13. I think it’s important for a designer to notice that there are patterns that exist, and to determine: 1. Why they exist 2. Whether or not they need to exist 3. If they should change. 

    For a simple example, think about a car’s horn. I’m sure it’s a hell of a lot easier to put a button on the dash instead of figuring out how to work around the airbag system — but everyone instinctually goes to the center of the wheel for the horn because that’s that standard pattern (I imagine it wound up there pretty quickly after invention due to our nature of hitting the closest thing when scared/frustrated). As far as why? It’s right in front of you, important (subjectively), easy to access, and vastly distinct from other controls. It makes sense for it to be there, and should probably be there in all cars because of the previous considerations. 

    That’s an oversimplification — but it sets the slate for how designers should think about control systems in general. I think cars could REALLY benefit from more standardization, but it’s important to think of it not as becoming generic — but as becoming consistent. 

    Here’s what I mean by consistent vs generic; taking the example out of the car: A website. Most websites have their logos and navigation in very similar locations. You load up a website and you expect things to be in a certain place — and most of the time they are. When they’re not you’re confused, and have to make the decision of: 1. Becoming familiar with the website so you can continue using it, or 2. Stop using the website and go to another one that’s more familiar. There are millions of websites that use pretty much a variation of the same design pattern, and very few people would argue that the internet is homogenous because of this pattern. 

    So back to cars. When I rent a car, it shouldn’t take me 5 goddamned frustrating minutes to figure out where the trunk/gas releases are. Is it on the door? on the side of the seat? on the steering column? center console? in the glove box? left side of the dash? I’ve driven cars with all of these as options, and I’m sure there are still more variations out there. WHY?No, It doesn’t need to be homogenous. Make it an aviator switch, push button, touchscreen, or a fucking disco ball — but put it in a place where I can consistently expect it to be in MOST cars. Location isn’t the place to change things for the sake of changing things in your mid-range sedan. If it’s not making it easier to find, don’t make it harder to find to save $1 on wiring. 

    Now, if you’re doing something innovative — making your car the least expensive, smallest, fastest, most efficient, most stylish, or a special case that requires things to be placed different; go for it. People are going to expect things to be different because the car is different from other cars. I’m not talking different in the “our sedan is somehow magically better than other sedans that all have the same components” I’m talking about some actual innovation. If I get into a Tesla Roadster and things aren’t where I’d expect them to be, that’s something I can deal with because, you know — the car’s actually different from everything else on the road. The trunk release is in a different place because the trunk location is in a different place. 

    No, it isn’t the end of the world if you can’t find the trunk/gas release as fast as you’d like to. But it baffles me that car designers are completely failing to recognize that they’re all designing cars. It would take a one page diagram to set some very basic rules based on logical design choices. Hell, I’m sure manufacturers all have independently done a ton of research on how people interact with cars — where’s the harm in sharing that with each other and coming to a conclusion together? How are they benefiting from NOT making cars easier to use across the board?

    1. The other week I was out for a walk and an elderly woman stopped her car in the street, and asked me for help. She said how do you stop the blink blink or something slightly less clear. So I was a bit confused but I took a look and yeah the hazard lights were on. I turned them off and showed the button to a younger woman in the passenger seat. She got the idea and they were okay.

      The thing is that the hazard light button is about the most standard UI element in a car. It is the easiest to find.

      Another time my wife told me of the time when a man stopped her at a traffic light and asked he to do something complicated with a stalk on her steering column. She didn’t understand and he finished up saying just pull the stalk that way and make sure the blue light is off in the instrument panel.

      So she asked me about it later and I explained about high and low beams but she couldn’t understand why she shouldn’t just use high beam all the time because you can see further so I just told her not to leave the blue light on near the instruments and left it at that.

      1. I couldn’t figure out where my hazard lights were a couple of weeks ago. Instead of being near the other light controls, it’s a button in between the center heating/AC vents. That’s just crackheaded.

      2. Honestly the only thing I took away from those stories was the fact that the people probably knew how to work their cell phones better than a 3000+lbs vehicle that could kill someone.

      3. Your wife couldn’t understand why driving with high beams on all the time is unsafe?  And you were mostly OK with this?

        1. No I wasn’t okay with it. I think part of the problem is that she hardly drives at night, and never in the country, and wasn’t aware of the difference between high and low beam.

  14. If you drive a huge number of unfamiliar cars (as I have done) it’s always worth taking a couple of minutes before you set off to work out where all the important bits are. Saves a lot of time at that first toll booth, rainstorm or petrol station, and gives you much more time to figure out the pointlessly complex radio or satnav. 

    That said, most people only have to get used to a car every few years. It’s a motoring journalist’s favourite gripe, which nobody else understands at all.

  15. How about we expect more from ourselves instead of designing for the lowest-common-denominator?  You’re a smarter person for having to figure out where the controls on different cars are. 

      1.  So I’m not better at knowing what the icons for Rear Defog, Windshield Wipers, Hazard lights, High-Beams, etc look like from having to hunt for them in different cars over the years? 

        It doesn’t make me better at problem solving to stop for a minute to figure out an unfamiliar but potentially deadly machine rather than just stab the go pedal and hope for the best? 

        They don’t standardize the layouts of aircraft, boats, helicopters, etc and those are FAR more dangerous than ordinary cars.  They get away with it because the people who pilot them specialize in specific vehicles and get certifications for them. 

        1. It’s not a matter of learning symbols it’s a matter of forming habits. If every car I get into has a similar control placement, I intuitively know where everything is without learning new behaviors or going through adjustment phases.

          I know to close this window I hit the red X in the upper right hand corner — if every time the browser opened that red X was in a different location I wouldn’t be learning from having to search for it. I’d be wasting time because I’d be consciously thinking about something that should just become second nature.

          My right foot is the gas pedal, and always will be in every car — it becomes so familiar that it just becomes instinct; an extension of your own body.

  16. The existence of a standard doesn’t prevent anyone from releasing a non-standard car that “innovates”. Happens in computing all the time. (Constantly. More than is really necessary, in fact.)

    1.  Cars ain’t computers. Standards are compulsory when it comes to cars and other vehicles and anybody who think they could get their vehicle certified if they fuck with a set standard would have to pay a heavy fine and take the costs for a retrofit. Very expensive, i could tell you, having worked at a car factory for several years and having to change bad stuff before shipping when the rest of my friends were enjoying their vacations…

  17. I bought a new Chevy Volt, the high-tech marvel of its age. It has a big touch screen and a center console covered in buttons. 

    The Power button is right next to the driving mode button. Guess which one you press often while you’re driving, and which one you should NEVER press while driving?

    It also has hard, dedicated buttons on the center console for setting the time on the clock and for radio presets, buttons that are used once every few years, if that. Why these aren’t buried in the voluminous menus of the touch-screen, I’ll never figure out.

  18. What about the stupid approach to the fog light switch and all the blissfully ignorant morons who drive around with it on all the time!

  19. As an owner of a Mini Cooper, I strongly agree. Everytime I drive the car, I get mad about the terrible UI. Quirky is not a good excuse, it’s just dumb.

  20. The LAST thing we need is to make cars more accessible to unqualified drivers. If you can’t figure out how the turn signals and mirrors, either learn or give the keys to somebody else.

    1.  Yes, The Devil approves. Let’s make it more dangerous for inexperienced drivers to kill themselves and others in traffic. Also remove all the sissy stuff like seatbelts and airbags from all cars and let the unlucky Darwinize themselves out of the gene pool. Funerals are fun, let’s have more of them… ;-)

  21. Standardization =/= dumbing down.
    Standardization = easier to use.
    Next time you replace your phone with a new or different model, how ’bout you let us know how easy it is to do something you could do in moments on your old phone, like import a phone number to memory.  We’ll wait.

    1. I had a Droid X2 prior to the Galaxy Nexus.  Other than the big switch from Gingerbread to Jellybean, and being rid of the Motoblur nonsense, it was a pretty easy task to import a phone number to memory; as with my X2, the GNex pulled them out of my Gmail contacts.

  22. So first off, I travel for work.  I practically drive a brand new car every few weeks.  I have driven a LOT of cars, but by no means all.  Mostly lower end cars (I have a relatively high budget, but see keeping my spending low as both good for my customers, and a geeky challenge).

    My personal car is/was (just had it totaled by a teen driver) a newish VW golf.That said, I agree with a few points:Analog knobs are great.  Intuitive, don’t have to look at them.  You should absolutely figure out a few of the controls of your new vehicle before taking off.  To a certain extent, adapting on the fly to a new car shouldn’t be painful.  It should be clear from the buttons what features the car supports, and what it doesn’t (it frequently isn’t).  Standard stuff like the indicator on the gas gauge as to which side the fuel tank is on is AWESOME.Important driver information, as well as music/radio stuff should be displayed directly in front of you if there’s a display for it (many cars, even lower end fords, do this).  Radio/music stuff is optional, depending on your music/driving style.Non critical stuff should be displayed in the center console.Steering wheel buttons for cruise control/music should be sensible and touch-only.  Same places on every car.

    Instrument/button wise, some of the best cars I’ve driven have been VW/Ford/Hyundai.  Predictable, sensible, great features even on the low end.

    Seriously, worst instrument layout I’ve dealt with so far has been with the Prius.   Really Toyota, WTF.  That big ass bright screen in the middle with no competing light from other instrument clusters will screw with your night vision.  As well, more information needs to be directly in front of you.  I get it, it’s a car that’s good for the environment, but how about spending a bit less time congratulating yourself on a big gorgeous LCD, and displaying useful information to the drive directly in an ugly-but-functional cluster in front of their face.  The stereo controls need to be on the damn stereo (although granted, I’ve only rented the, what, 2010 models?).

    And to date, the overall best rental car I’ve driven, bizarrely, has been the Nissan Cube.  Which unfortunately, the first time I rented one, I had my customer call me up after driving away to specifically tell me I looked ridiculous driving it.  I actually was much more comfy driving that than a number of much nicer cars like Cadillac, Infiniti, Muscle cars, various convertibles, etc.  Ah well.

  23. Quite frankly having a standard vehicle UI is one of the smallest issues I have with car makers.  Why not go a few steps further and have standardized engine mounts and bellhouse/transmission patterns?  Is there really any reason that an engine from something like a 2000 Chevy Cavalier shouldn’t work in a 2004 Chevy Cobalt?  Or the fact there are a bajillion shock and strut combinations, and you might as well throw every other accessory component in here as well.

    If I wanted to make cars safer I’d install a cell phone jammer, the UI is the least of people’s worries.

  24.  I have a 1987 Mazda pickup, a 1988 VW Fox, and a 2012 Chevy Cruze.  I knew exactly what each control on the first two did within 5 minutes of acquiring the vehicle.  After 5 months I’m still trying to figure out many of the controls on the Chevy.  (And yes, I did read the driver’s manual.)  I understand that Ford’s Sync system is even worse.  Complexity is the enemy of efficiency.

  25. The one major gripe I have about controls is in my Toyota…pushing the turn signal stalk forward makes the high beams go on.  I’m good enough that I can activate my turn signals with either hand however on the Toyota if I try to use the turn signal with my right hand, I accidentally blind other drivers in the intersection.  Also, it being a really small car to me and my hands are large just turning the wheel occasionally makes me turn the high beams on.  At the end of the day, it makes me REALLY hate using the turn signals and I end up making the roads more dangerous by accident.

    I own 4 cars, two with column shifters, two with floor shifters.  No matter what, I still constantly reach for one, or the other.  Shifting is so habitual it’s hard to break the pattern.

  26. The dash in the picture is definitely a Citroen, probably an early CX model from the late 1970ies before a redesign gave it a far more conventional dashboard. Citroen were proud then of being a really innovative company, and tried to do things differently, like with the “satellites” left and right of the steering wheel where they tried to arrange buttons in an intuitive manner, but of course baffled many new drivers, so the satellites were a short lived thing. So were the analog bar displays. Brakes on a Citroen worked different, too, the pedal had almost no way of travel but braking was proportional to pressure. Also they had this hydropneumatic suspension going back to the great DS of the 1950ies. The BX of the 1980ies was to my knowledge the last middle class car with a suspension like that, today you find it only in large luxury cars. Etcetera. They dared to do things differently, and often failed, but they sure were innovative.

    Oh and to the guy who created the photo caption: if you drive a car like that without familiarizing with where the controls are, don’t blame the designer when your negligence causes an accident. Also, I can see the bloody horn button in the picture, it’s on the upper left, labled with a horn, duh!

  27. If you’ve never had to drive a Peugeot 504, you should be disqualified from answering this question.  Want to honk the horn?  Don’t hit the big pad in the middle of the steering wheel, because that doesn’t do anything but hide the steering-wheel nut; instead, tug on the turn signal stalk.  Which, by the way, is on the opposite side of the steering wheel from every other turn-signal stalk you’ve ever used; that thing that you *thought* was the turn-signal stalk controls your lights and wipers.

    I shudder to think how many accidents those cars would have caused had anybody in the US actually bought them.

  28. I have to agree with the writer of the article. Unless you are actually going to substantially improve the functionality of a control by moving it to a new place, there should be standards. The only reason there aren’t is that most folks only have to drive one or two cars a year. My job requires me to deal with operating dozens of different cell phones, and it is a nightmare to figure out where they hid the most basic controls in different skins of Android and other OSes.

  29. Just be glad that there is a standard shift pattern for manual transmissions now. it was not always so, and they were different enough that most companies would only allow a driver to operate one make of vehicle. That is a major hazard. So is forgetting you are not driving a manual and slamming the brake pedal when you think its time to shift.
    I’m more concerned about the fact that when I worked at a quick-lube shop, people often had to look for the controls, often hitting the wipers instead of the signal lights, or worse. “I have fog lights?” was a far too common question. some cars had UIs that did not allow easy access to one or another control, like the honda odyssey which had the control stalks so close together that going for the shift leaver meant bumping the lights. I met lots of folks who didn’t know the difference between euro/asia dimmers and US. Also every time the industry has gone to a “standard” they’ve used it as an excuse to screw over the consumer, so I’m not for it just on that alone. As for the person who wants standardized car parts, its the gripe of every home mechanic the world over. But I like efficiency, I like cars that don’t require a hectare of hood to cover 2L of engine. Yes it sucks, but of all the vehicles I’ve worked on, the easiest were the ones using parts built for that car, not off the shelf bits and bobs. Late model eagle talon AWD. WORST CAR EVER, although every part on it is from another car. I don’t envy the guys who have to shoe-horn all the bits into the body style given to them, and figure out how to produce the thing. Sure working on them gets tough, but if you want an easy car to work on, just go find yourself a 1985 chevy half-ton. Life is full of compromises.

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