Drivers should be able to concentrate fully on the road ahead. That's obvious. Yet, all too often, half-hidden and hazily-marked controls make driving more difficult and complicated rather than easier.
Not everyone grasps the meaning of the little pictorial icons that identify so many controls and functions these days, as actual descriptive words disappear from our dashboards and door panels. If letters of the alphabet appear at all, chances are they're obtuse abbreviations or acronyms that leave some drivers bewildered. Sure, we know that "AC" probably stands for air conditioning; but many of the two- and three-letter combinations in today's cars are far less obvious.
Engineers have to believe they're making driving easier–and safer–by moving toward modern control layouts. Yet, not everyone benefits equally. Steering-wheel controls for such features as the audio system and cruise control, for instance, are considered safer because the driver can use them while keeping hands on the wheel. True enough, but that's only helpful if the driver understands what each of those little buttons does.
Electronic control adds another dimension to the problem, and it's partly a generational issue. Younger people tend to favor electronic selection methods, whether to simply tune the radio or to program a host of comfort/convenience functions. Those of us who learned to drive on simpler vehicles, with far fewer controls, lean toward the simplicity offered by ordinary rotary knobs, clearly-identified buttons, and mechanical levers.
Interior designers like to believe their cars' control systems are intuitive, meaning drivers should quickly grasp how to operate them. If only that were true. As more features are added to vehicles, even the elementary tasks of driving inevitably become less obvious.
BMW's iDrive system gets the credit–or the blame–for the invasion of electronic control, though several other luxury-car makers use similar setups. Making so many tasks controllable by a single, central knob and pattern of pushbuttons on the console is supposed to let us do everything without taking eyes off the road more than momentarily. For those who "get it," that's a big step forward. For the rest, these systems violate a basic rule: You shouldn't have to study the owner's manual to figure out the simplest tasks, like picking out a radio station or switching from FM to XM.