What is Wrong With Car Design

Friday, 15 March 2002

[picture of Model T Ford design]CARS were originally “horseless carriages”, and so the coachwork design was naturally based on horse-drawn carriages. Then came aerodynamic and futuristic, with space-age fins and lots of chrome. You would be forgiven for thinking that we have seen it all from sports-cars to people carriers, from smart-cars to stretch limousines.

[Picture of futuristic car with tail fins]However, the sad fact is that each wave of automotive design has completely overlooked the user. Incredible as it may seem, this is patently true!

Cars have been designed to be safer to pedestrians, with softer rounded fronts, and to be safer to passengers, with side-impact bars, crush-zones, air bags and lots of other clever things. They have gone from being fast to being fuel efficient, easy to park and difficult to steal.

They have been a lifestyle choice, a badge, a status symbol, a statement.

[Picture of a car with the engine hood up]Even though creature comforts have improved internally, the sad fact is that car designers do not design for the user. Let me explain what I mean: everything you have to do with a TV or even a washing machine, can be done without accessing the workings; you do not have to remove the back of the TV, exposing the wires and circuits, to maintain it. Such things are the domain for the professional TV repairer. In fact many such compartments are clearly marked as having “No User Serviceable Parts”, “Danger” and “Keep Out”.

[Picture of warning sign]

What I am trying to say is that cars are not like that — and I just do not understand why they are not like that, nor why we have put up with this for a century!

You ought to be able to fill your windscreen washers, engine oil, and radiator water WITHOUT LIFTING THE BONNET! For heaven’s sakes — you CAN fill the car with petrol without lifting the lid, so why not?

And when you do open the bonnet or remove the wheel — would it be too much to ask the designers for some electric lighting? A small bulb would go a long way in an emergency, especially when your torch batteries run out and you don’t have a lighter or matches anymore because you stopped smoking!

If it is a good idea to have a heated rear windscreen, why not have a front heated windscreen? I know that the Ford Mondeo has this, but why is it not as standard as the rear type?

[Picture of car jack]Citroën cars have the famous height adjustable suspension, so they do not require a jack to change a tyre — what a user-friendly idea! At least cars should have built-in jacks, perhaps pneumatically operated.

It amazes me that mudflaps are optional extras, and that they still make press-on hub-caps! Surely we could design better than this?

I have always thought it silly that we are able to run our battery flat by forgetting to turn off lights. It is not difficult to design in a timer to activate when the engine is off. Or what about simply having two batteries? Because some countries drive on the other side of the road, there is a mirror image in the engine compartment for changing over the steering etc. So there is a battery bay on both sides — it is not too difficult to imagine having two batteries, one charging the other as required.

The two battery idea makes perfect sense to those familiar with jumper cables / jump leads! With some sensors, a second battery could operate a cabin cooling system so that on hot days your car is comfortable at all times, and in winter, the engine would start easier and be more efficient by being trace heated automatically when the temperature drops.

[Picture of car keys]Car alarms are a puzzle. We hear them so often now that we just ignore them; they are set off by all sorts of things, so they cannot be taken seriously. For years we have had keys that wirelessly activate the central locking and alarm system from a distance — I have always thought it would have been a better idea to have the alarm on the key fob. In other words, when a car is being stolen, instead of setting off an alarm that everyone ignores and that the vehicle owner cannot hear, the alarm sounds in the key fob in the owner’s pocket.

We have electric windows, yet we have to scrape ice from them, and they can still be broken by a thief, so it seems like a good idea to have metal windows that work in the same way as the glass ones (i.e. they go up and down electrically). When a car is locked up for the night, the glass cannot be seen, the car cannot be seen into, and the glass will not get iced up in winter (the metal will). This is also handy for privacy, for example, when you want a nap, or need darkness due to migraine, to develop photographs, or to change into a swimsuit at the beach.

When a car is parked, the wing mirrors should disappear electrically inside the car to avoid being struck and to avoid icing up. It makes sense to me to have everything detract — windscreen wipers, antennae, etc.

Ashtrays and waste bins should be in the central well between the front seats, and should be ejected downward out of the car. All that would be required would be for a car (perhaps in a car wash or at the filling station), to drive over a rubbish trough.

I have never understood car doors. In older cars they opened with the hinges to the rear, but most car doors open with the hinges to the front. I would have thought that sliding doors would make more sense, especially in parking bays where doors can touch cars parked in adjacent bays.

In planes and ships, there are instruments to assist in navigation — but not for cars! I would have thought that a compass would have been a minimal requirement! Even better would be a standard GPS navigation system, and not as an after-thought, or as an add-on either. This should be a basic requirement, along with a built-in hands-free carphone system.

There is very little thought for children and pets, hobby gear, shopping and luggage. For example, what about some form of standard car power point being introduced to run computer games, laptops, charge up phones and the like. Cigar lighters are far from ideal!

I am sure my point is made; cars are not designed for the end-user! Drivers do not want to lift the bonnet to do the washers, oil and water. They do not want to wind up a car jack to change a tyre, and they do not want to have to keep buying full sets of hub caps. Users hate jump starts, running a battery flat is a real annoyance, getting lost and being stranded is annoying too. Vandalism, theft and bad weather are all terribly inconvenient as well. The more you think about it, the more obvious it all becomes!

Oh how different would cars be if they were designed for real people leading real lives!


One Response to “What is Wrong With Car Design”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    excellent post, I like to see people thinking about improving the quality of their lives. but I think you are ignoring the root causes of the problems you’ve described. the most effective car design isn’t the most efficient, so the trouble should be spread out on a wider more broad area that encompasses city planning, regulations, and law enforcement, so you don’t need to burden yourself with every single problem, like in the security issue you mentioned, the problem isn’t with the car but with the city and the economical system that forces people to steal, there are some cities where people don’t even lock their cars when they leave them, they just leave them there, and about the side mirrors, only regulations are prohibiting the application of cameras instead of them, which would have canceled the problems you mentioned from the beginning. it’s like for fuel economy, you better design lightweight cars that aren’t that impact resistant and regulate the traffic than design a military like vehicle and so on. my point is, it is better to spread the tasks between people than let each one deal with them all on his own, it makes more sense.
    but you’re right, since cars are already expensive, and law improvements takes a long time and a lot of dedication, it wouldn’t hurt big car companies to benefit from mass production to add some features to their cars that would better the lives of their consumers.
    Obai, Architect.

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