Thursday, April 10, 2008

When technology becomes too much

As a self-proclaimed petrolhead (aka automotive enthusiast), I've pretty much had it with technology especially when it has to do with cars. I don't mind the advanced technology involved in producing more horsepower. Nor do I mind eco-friendly concepts that makes the engine more efficient to run. What I don't like are the Swiss-army-knife gadgetry that is so sophisticated, they are pawned-off as safety features.

For example, now there's a system where it tells the driver whether there's a car coming up or driving within your blind spot. This will prevent you from making a bad lane change and perhaps sideswiping a nearby car. But - what about turning your head to check your blindspot when you make the lane-change? I mean, what's the point of driver education if we have all these devices to guide us in what's suppose to be the normal activity of driving?

Another device aids in slowing down the car when it's in cruise control, then speeds up when the traffic has either gained speed or the obstructing car moved into another lane. Yet another device does the parking for you. Short of having an IT degree, all you have to do is read a thick manual and practice and learn how to use the system before engaging it. And now with the proliferation - no, make that saturation of GPS navigation units, you can no longer get lost. Though there have been instances where drivers have driven someplace on the virtual map but found a lake in the way.

I swear, the art of driving is being lost.

So what does this have to do with usability?

Since the art of driving is being lost, the driver is no longer a driver with all these computer-nannies. The activity we used to love so much is making us, the driver, operate like a systems manager. It used to be that there were only four things to take note of:
  • the ignition
  • the pedals
  • the steering wheel
  • and the gear changer.
Now cars such as BMW M3's and Nissan GTR's Have anywhere from 8 to 14 different settings to adjust suspension, differential, throttle and traction control systems. So doesn't it seem that technology is compensating for the lack of driving sensibilities and spatial awareness?

In this sense, these gadgets and systems become interference, especially to those who have been driving a long time without these technologies - and that's a majority of the people on the road! And when technology becomes interference, they become liabilities to the user experience - too much stress, too much cognitive load, too much memory load. Quite often, these gadgets turn obsolete because all it was, was a novelty. And novelties wear out fast.

On the other side, perhaps it's a godsend. The ability to handle a 3-ton machine wrapped in glass and metal in close proximity is getting quite stressful especially in highly populated areas. So is it really better to add more stress by adding more gadgets to make sure you get to point B safely?

The automotive purist in me still says, "No." While driving is still driving, commuting is not driving. Commuting is the act of lining up to get to a place the same as 10 other people.

So what is the benefit of implementing systems such as these? In one word - marketing. In two, product differentiation. But then, ABS (anti-lock braking systems) have become standard issue because it was so good. I'm talking about other gadgets like that notorious rear-view camera.

So what to do? Reduce the amount of computer-nannying. It's almost as if the manufacturers don't trust the drivers anymore. Kind of like how TPMS (tire pressure monitoring system) was legislated to be standard equipment on every new car.

By reducing the amount of computer nannying, you're eventually putting less stress on the driver in managing the computer. This is a case where more features is not beneficial. A case where keeping it simple really makes sense in reducing accidents and saving lives. A little common sense - when practiced, does way more than a computer system ever could.

And that, my friends, can make all the difference.

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