Editor’s Letter: Settings

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From the January 2023 issue of Car and Driver.

I have been accused of changing the world to suit myself. Fair evidence judgement: disabling the Glade PlugIn that makes my building’s mailroom stink, traveling with a tool to remove flow-limiters from hotel bathrooms, requesting TV-B-Gone for Christmas, and customizing the steering column and display in my beloved Ford Escape every time I drive it. I am not alone. In fact, automakers are tapping into the innate human desire to customize things.

The typical ’23 model has a dizzying number of settings. My basic pre-flight checklist goes something like this: Plug in the phone and pray for wireless CarPlay, or add “a stuck USB cable from the depth of the backpack into the slot” to the list. Find the main control and chassis settings. Soften the dampers (adaptive dampers do just that, adapt). Lighten up the steering except the weight seems unnatural. I want sensitive throttle, and normal transmission mode is a good starting place. Next, security settings. Goodbye, blind spot monitoring—my mirror is adjusted to see blind spots. Lane departure warnings are for heedless people, and I set the collision warning to sound as late as possible. I want all doors to open when I touch the doorknob or unlock button. Turn off the easy-to-enter seats that slide back when you turn off the car; keep the right side exterior mirror dipping. The headlights automatically turn off as soon as the car stops. Parking warnings are silenced, fake engine sound is muted, exhaust is in normal mode, climate control is on automatically. The doors and illuminated floors make the interior look like a failed European disco—ciao for that. Wait. Why does this Taylor Swift song have so much bass? Look for audio controls.

For the best 10 Weeks, CD staff cycled through 40 cars in five days, getting the chance to test nearly every setup menu and interface. Hyundai, Kia, Genesis and General Motors do what they do best, making the possibilities easy to find and decipher. The Korean brand and Mazda went a step further by explaining what the choice does, which is useful when deciding what effect the Bose Centerpoint will have on your CX-50. The interfaces of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo are hardly intuitive. Former editor-in-chief Csaba Csere is endlessly searching for ways to dim the giant Mercedes-Benz EQE Hyperscreen. Before you ask, he read the manual, and he eventually found a control buried deep in the menu instead of one labeled Light. I caught up with the two interface designers behind Hyperscreen and asked what else they’d been working on—Hyperscreen was their first automotive project. Noncooks in the kitchen.

My philosophy is to let the specialists do their job. Engineers must oversee the driving and handling of the car, not the owner. Car experts who understand that phones and cars have different needs should design the display and controls. While some adjustments are allowed, too many lead to what psychologist Barry Schwartz dubs the choice paradox—too many choices hinder decisions and create stress. Enter the confusing interface and, well, I’ll never leave this parking lot.

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