Auto Electronics Got Complicated


Recently, I bought a new SUV. Weeks later I am still learning to use it. It is no secret that the electronic content of cars and trucks has increased dramatically over the years. The electronics has added new safety and convenience features, but it has also increased driving distraction and steepened the learning curve. I am both loving and hating the electronic content of my new vehicle and enduring the frustration of learning how it works and how to use it. But I’m getting there.

I hadn’t bought a new car in six years. In that time, lots of new electronic goodies have become standard. In fact, younger buyers are expecting the electronics to just be there. What is becoming clear to me is that the new electronic features are useful and helpful but they do introduce a complexity that did not exist before. Take the radio as an example. In older cars, to hear a local AM station for traffic news, you turned the radio on, selected AM and tuned to the station. In my new car, it takes four touchscreen menu selections and knowledge of a new set of icons to get to a station. Tuning is additional with the touchscreen or a knob. It is possible to set up a Favorites station to eliminate the tuning step. Almost every other function is like that.

Connected carAnother example is the headlights. In my older cars, the headlights had a single switch to turn on the headlights and/or parking/running lights. In my new vehicle there are multiple rotary switches on a stalk. The headlight switch has five positions—one for off, and the others for controlling the high beams either manually or automatically. Another position gives AUTO control where the car determines when to turn the lights on or off. Yet another switch turns the fog lights off or on. I had to read the manual to figure all of this out. The headlights are all LED and super-bright. They also rotate to the right or left when you are turning to better light the way into the turn (nice on a dark road). There are interesting daylight running lights, too.

Then there is all of the wireless. The remote keyless entry uses an RF link to open and lock the doors. The key fob also links wirelessly to an internal ignition switch transceiver that enables the start/stop button. Next are the Bluetooth connections for hands-free cell phone use and connecting the music on your phone to the car’s audio system. And don’t forget the wireless tire pressure sensors and monitor. My vehicle also has three 315-MHz ISM band transmitters to use for remote control of garage doors, gates, and other entrances. You first have to program each transmitter with the garage door or gate remote unit. It works quite well.

The entertainment system may be the most complex I have ever encountered. It uses a 7-in. color touchscreen and a big control knob on the shifter console. This arrangement seems to be popular in many other vehicles, as well. There are lots of new icons to learn and menus and sub-menus galore. The touchscreen is disabled while you are driving to prevent distraction, in which case you resort to the control knob to make menu selections. Radio selections include AM, FM, HD, and SiriusXM satellite with its 184 channels. (HD is the U.S. digital system that simultaneously rebroadcasts AM or FM content digitally via an RF overlay of OFDM on the same frequency.)

In addition, I can select the CD player or Bluetooth music from whatever source. Pandora and aha are also available. It has taken me several playing-around sessions to figure all this out. I still don't like to do it while driving. I haven't tried out the GPS navigation system yet, but there is another learning session or two. All of this would be much easier to use if the voice response system would recognize my voice. Maybe I am speaking a foreign language.

As for the safety features, the new car has multiple radars and lasers and various sensors for blind spot, lane departure, and back-up warning notifications. There is also automatic rear braking and self-adjusting cruise control with auto braking. The all-wheel-drive system has traction control. I have yet to experience all this stuff but the backup camera is great.

I think all the new electronic features are okay, but they are an example of how complex things have become. Designers need to be careful to not over-design. Furthermore, designers should employ consumer focus groups to use what they designed. Make it easier, not harder to use. I know you embedded programmers are having fun with this as you ponder what else to pile on.

Anyway, I am still learning. I have yet to figure out how to set the dashboard clock, but I am sure my 2-in. thick, 400+ page user’s manual can show me how in a dozen easy steps.

Self-driving cars are next. You have to wonder if they will be easier to learn and use since no driving is involved. Or will they be harder to use since you have to tell the car where to go and how to find a parking space in the mall parking garage? Lots of fun stuff to look forward to. Isn't technological progress great? Sometimes I just wish for a '60s muscle car with a good AM radio.

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Discuss this Blog Entry 20

on Jul 8, 2016

Call me a Luddite if you will, but this stuff is going too far in complexity.
Four menu layers to turn on the radio to a particular station?? Worse yet is the current vulnerability of the connected vehicle to control by pranksters or worse. My call for restraint will go unheeded....

on Jul 11, 2016

And, an AM radio is one thing you probably won't get on the next generation of EVs.... too much EMI from the motors/inverters !

on Jul 11, 2016

My personal belief is that non of these complexity actually add anything useful other than cost. It just a hype to help salesmen. I hate new cars. I have been fixing my old cars and hoping never have to buy a new car (I am 56 year old).

on Jul 11, 2016

All of these features are just going to contribute even more to the self-absorbed distraction that we see in drivers and pedestrians (who pay more attention to their smart phone than to traffic when crossing a street). Many people seem to have abdicated their sense of responsibility or use of good judgment, instead being dependent upon, or distracted by their electronics. But their electronics won't save them when they pull out or step off the curb 10 feet in front of an 18-wheeler. The laws of physics will still apply.

on Jul 11, 2016

It's worse for us old geezers who listen to AM. It's assumed that AM is the LAST thing that you want, so, in my Toyota, it's the hardest thing to get to and it always defaults back to something else when I turn the radio on.

on Jul 11, 2016

You might want to swap in an HD Radio. Actually works with AM in addition to FM. Of course, you need a station that supports it. You actually get great reception, when it works. Same for FM.

on Jul 11, 2016

I think it would be very hard to "swap in an HD radio". While a great car stereo unit with CD player is readily available, there is no place to mount it. The entertainment/navigation package is not in the old DIN standard car radio form/fit, and it is also likely to contain needed maintenance functions as well as the climate system controls.

on Jul 11, 2016

I need 4 wheels, engine, ABS, windshield-washer-wipers, windows and seat heaters, cabin (I am in Northeast), AC, radio with NPR, rock, jazz and classic (just few channels), hookup for MP3 player. Few others obvious things like horn, suspension etc ... Could be electrical if makes economic sense for me (sadly, Tesla does not).
It can have all other whistles and bells as long as: A - I can forget about them, B - they do not add to the price. BTW, just to set the context correct: I use the car for personal transportation, I know, that may sound like a strange idea now ...

on Jul 11, 2016

Thanks for highlighting this critical issue. In their rush to add features and new technologies, auto manufacturers have forgotten the fundamental elements of user-centered design. It's great to have an innovative Human Machine Interface (HMI), but that HMI must also be intuitive and reliable. Manufacturers would be well-served to go back to 1988 and read Donald Norman's definitive work "The Design of Everyday Things". It's important to understand human behavior and the simple elegance of design to reduce driver distractions, errors, and overall frustrations.

on Jul 11, 2016

Cars and computers, a great combination when combined with common sense. Who wants to go back to carburetors? However, I have cars because I need transportation, not to use as entertainment devices.

Likewise, computers. Anyone who spent thousands of hours on PDP-8s has an appreciation for Intel's contribution to mankind, but catering to the mass market has given us dirt cheap computing power at the expense of control.
Recently, my county bought a new system for scanning documents and microfilm for conversion to DVD media. A couple of weeks ago, after an automatic Windows update, the software jammed. The system hasn't worked since.
It doesn't make sense to have $50K worth of equipment inoperable because of an update of a $300 computer, which in no way enhances the system in which it's embedded.

on Jul 11, 2016

My 96 Cheyenne (K1500) has a radio and a headlight switch and an ECM. Not much else. I have a couple of Pre-Selects on the radio and it has a built in clock. I will keep this truck till the day I die. My wife's 2009 Toyota Sienna has all of the electronic amenities mentioned in the article and she uses many of them (once our son explains how they work and does the setups necessary). I seldom drive this beast and when I do I turn most of it off. I select a radio station before I put it in gear and set the AC up for a cooler temperature and then ignore everything else on that control panel for the rest of my trip. I have to admit that I enjoy the front seat butt warmers on cold days, would have loved those when I lived in Michigan. Once, on a solo trip, I kept hearing voices in the back of the car. It creeped me out until I finally stopped the car and investigated only to discover there was a movie playing on a rear seat only screen. It took me another 10 minutes to figure out how to stop the DVD player embedded in the aforementioned control panel. I don't know how many levels down its on/off control was. Well, she can have it, I don't want it, its too fat (with doodads) for me. I still would prefer a 1948 MG TC to anything I have seen lately. Not even one computer!

on Jul 12, 2016

Thank goodness Lucas (who made electrical system for MG) never made a computer.

on Jul 11, 2016

Directional headlights have been around at least since the 1928 Willys-Knight 70D Touring Car and were featured on the Duesenbergs in the 30s and Citroën in the 50s.

on Jul 13, 2016

Ein erstes Kurvenlicht wurde bereits 1918 im Cadillac Type 57 angeboten, später für das Modell V16 von 1930. Bei Tatra wurde 1935 im Tatra 77 und später im Tatra 87 ein Kurvenlicht verbaut. Auch der Tucker Torpedo, der ab 1948 nur in einer Kleinstserie produziert wurde, besaß einen dritten Scheinwerfer in der Mitte, das sogenannte „Zyklopenauge“.

Im September 1968 wurde das Kurvenlicht erstmals in Europa serienmäßig von Citroën im DS eingesetzt. Über einen Seilzug, der mit der Lenkung verbunden war, wurde das Fernlicht gelenkt.

on Jul 11, 2016

Of all the comments and observations, I think the one regarding appropriate UX design is spot-on. I recently drove a new rental car of a high-end brand across northern Europe. There were a few features of the car that I really wanted to use (cruise control for instance) but I just could not entirely suss out their proper use.
And I'm an engineer!
Otherwise, I really love all the "complexity" being added. What an exciting time for us gadget freaks!

on Jul 12, 2016

All of those "features" are added for the marketing departments quest for "product differentiation", since the concept of making a high quality product has been abandoned years ago. Now when I ask about quality I get a listing of features, and when I tell them that I mean product reliability and robustness I get either a spiel about the service plans that I can purchase or else just a blank experession, since the concept of a product lasting a long time is totally foreign to a lot of folks..

on Jul 19, 2016

This is exactly right! Another thing: Not having to worry about making a reliable product also allows easier manufacture by low-skilled, low-cost labor overseas.

on Jul 12, 2016

What we do see is that most of the additions are things that require attention be given to them in order to provide any functions. That poses a real problem for safety because driving requires a great deal of attention. Some of the safety features do actually improve driving safety, while some of them detract from handling ability for those who have a good grasp of their vehicle's kinematics and the understanding of what to do. The setting up of vehicle handling for the inexperienced and unattentive drivers certainly detracts from the ability to be totally in control of the vehicle.
But the biggest problem that arrives with the extreme complexity of the vehicle will show up when some portion of the system fails. None of those many complex modules are cheap, and most of them will be available only from a dealer whose only goals are to show more profit than the other dealers. Mechanic, or service technician, time sells for a lot more than engineering time, and exchanging a module for another one will be a VERY expensive repair. So that is the ultimate "dark side" of all of those thousands of features.

on Jul 19, 2016

This started years ago, with real value-added electronics, but has evolved rather badly. Electronic fuel injection and electronic ignition added real performance and reliability value. But I recently had a car with a wonky turn signal. The fix used to be replacing a $5 flasher unit that plugged into the easily accessible fuse panel under the dash. Now, the fix is replacing a $400 "lighting control module" which uses a microprocessor to do the same job. And I do mean the "same" job! It adds no value, or reliability. The cost to repair is orders of magnitude greater. Taking apart the dash to replace it is no cake-walk either.

on Jul 19, 2016

The worst part is when your vehicle isn't equipped to the max and only has a few of the options. Try reading the owner's manual, and see the "if equipped" options and try to guess if your vehicle is equipped or not. The bluetooth connection to a cell phone is nice. My wife abhors smart phones, but she can make calls from her phone while driving by selecting the option on the control panel and speaking "call mom and dad" and it calls her parents home. [2015 Taurus] I like the info button to see the rest of what the title of the song being played is. (primarily on SiriusXM) What I don't like is when they move the cruise control buttons around, I get used to their location on my 2008 F-150 and get into the 2007 500 or the 2015 Taurus and have to relearn how to use the CC. The pickup doesn't have all the bells and whistles that the cars have. It doesn't even have temperature settings on the AC or heater. What you get is what you get for the settings.

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What's Communiqué?

Blogs on topics such as wired and wireless networking.


Lou Frenzel

Lou Frenzel writes articles and blogs on the wireless, communications and networking sectors for Electronic Design. Formerly, Lou was professor and department head at Austin Community College...
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