Showing all posts tagged cars:

The Problem with CarPlay

Today at the Geneva International Motor Show, Apple announced CarPlay, with is the new name for "iOS in the car". It looks great!

They are pitching it as "a Smarter, Safer & More Fun Way to Use iPhone in the Car", and I love the concept. We upgrade our phones every year or two, but our cars much less frequently than that. In-car entertainment systems are limited by the automotive industry’s product cycles, so they are basically already obsolete (in consumer terms) by the time the car hits the showroom. Enabling cars to piggy-back on the smart, GPS-navigating, voice-recognising, music-playing computers that we already carry in our pockets can only be a good thing.

If you take a look at a video of CarPlay in action, though, I see one huge issue.

Touchscreens in cars are a terrible idea. Old-school controls gave drivers haptic feedback: if you turn the dial one notch, you feel the click, and you get the next radio station, or one increment of temperature, or whatever it is. This is something drivers can do completely blind, without taking their eyes off the road.

It’s been at least a decade since cars could accommodate physical controls for all of their functions, so multi-function control systems like iDrive, Comand or MMI were introduced to help with the plethora of systems and settings that modern cars require. All of these systems allow users to navigate hierarchical menu trees to control in-car entertainment, navigation, and vehicle settings.

These systems are still better than touchscreens, though, because at least the driver’s hand rests on the one control, and that control still has tactile increments to it. The haptic feedback from those clicks is enough for seasoned users to be able to navigate the menu tree with only occasional glances at the screen - very important at highway speeds.

Touchscreens are terrible for non-visual feedback. Users have no idea, short of looking at the screen, whether their action achieved the result they wanted or not.

Apple’s suggestion of using Siri is not much of a fix. I like Siri and use the feature a lot in my car to dictate e-mails or messages, but it depends entirely on network access. Out of major cities - you know, where I take my car - network access is often insufficient to use Siri with any reliability, so drivers will almost certainly need to use the touchscreen as well.

I really hope that CarPlay also works with steering-wheel mounted controls, as those allow control with an absolute minimum of interruption. If we could have audio feedback that did not require network access, using the existing Accessibility text-to-speech functionality in iOS, that would be perfect.

Suprise!

I love my Beemer. Sure, it's only a 320d, so given the choice (and funds) I'd far prefer something with an M in the name. For instance I don't understand why my wife rolls her eyes when I point out the many ways in which the E60 M5 Touring is the perfect family car.

See? Perfect.

However, this is a company car, so I'm pretty lucky that it's not a misery-spec Fiat Stilo or some other sin against driving. It has sat-nav, Bluetooth, steering wheel controls, and so on. Being an E90 means it's starting to be a little bit dated in the details, e.g. the Bluetooth is not 2.1, so no music streaming. On the other hand there's an aux-in jack in the arm-rest, so it's not as if I have wires trailing everywhere.

The great advantage of a company car is of course that anything that goes wrong with it is Somebody Else's Problem. Even my accident, annoying though it was, didn't cost me a penny. However, the disadvantage is that the user doesn't get much input; in my case, the options were saloon or wagon, in any of three or four colours. Mine is a shark-skin grey which I think looks great, especially when a little dust gives it a matte look.

When I received the car I was therefore surprised to find that it was an automatic, as that was most definitely not a standard option. After checking the VIN, my fleet manager and I ascertained that it was the right car, just with the wrong spec, but BMW said I could keep it anyway. I was skeptical of the automatic, never having had good experiences with slush-boxes in the past, but off I trundled.

Misery on a stick

Once I had avoided killing myself or causing an accident by forgetting that an automatic transmission in D will go as soon as the driver takes his foot off the brake, without needing active application of the throttle, I got quite used to it, especially trickling through traffic on the Milan ring-road. The auto-box also made a good fist of snow on the roads in Milan, even on summer tyres (I hadn't yet had time to change them). Just roll s l o w l y off the brakes, don't touch the throttle, and it goes just fine.

The one thing that still really annoys me is the way it steadfastly fails to select the right gear. Left to its own devices, it tries to keep revs as low as it possibly can, which on a diesel is very low indeed. This is not ideal going into roundabouts or sharp corners, as it feels very lumbering and understeery without some revs to keep things under control. In frustration, you might be tempted to switch the transmission to DS, a sportier mode that holds gears for longer and down-shifts more readily. This does OK into the roundabout, but unless you're in a boy-racer mood, the way it then proceeds to hold second gear all the way to the next traffic light can get annoying.

So in the end you resort to swapping gears yourself, but then what's the point of an automatic transmission - apart from giving your left foot a break, that is? You still have to think about which gear you want to be in, and you still have to take your hand off the steering wheel to get into that gear, but now there's also an annoying... pause... before the gear actually engages, not to mention those fun times when you switch from D to DS and then into manual, resulting in all your passengers kangarooing into the air and swearing at you because you got three downshifts when you only wanted one.

Surprise!

This is a violation of the principle of least astonishment. This is a notion of UX (User eXperience) that basically states that the results of an action should match the user's reasonable expectations. It came to my attention as part of the iPhone mute switch brouhaha, but it makes a lot of instinctive sense. If I flub a gearshift in my manual car, because I didn't rev-match or misjudged the clutch's bite point, I have only myself to blame, except in particularly egregious cases. If on the other hand the auto transmission does something "helpful" resulting in an unexpected outcome, I become very annoyed with the automation.

To cut a long story short, my next car will have a proper manual again, unless there's a very good reason why - for instance, that I have finally talked SWMBO into letting me get an RS6 Avant or an M5 Touring…

Got my car back

Yay, I finally got my car back!

If you haven't heard the story already: On the 13th of Dec I was driving home on the Milan ring road. It was rush hour, so stop&go traffic. At a certain point traffic stopped again, I stopped, and so did the cars behind me. Then I saw a car in my rear-view mirror, skidding along between the lanes of traffic and not managing to stop. Somehow he missed several cars, but hit me hard enough to bounce me into the car in front. Nothing serious - no airbags - but all the crumple zones, well, crumpled.

This is where it gets weird: I checked on the car I had hit first, made sure they were OK, then while I was talking to the driver we saw the driver of the car that hit me with his two passengers walking towards us. We turned back to his wife, turned back again, and they were gone, leaving their running car abandoned in the middle of the Milan ring-road!

We naturally assumed the car was stolen and called the police, but when they arrived and ran the numbers it turned out to belong to a gypsy. These guys register hundreds of cars - quite literally; the policeman told me they found one guy with four hundred cars in his name! - and then anyone in the tribe can drive them. The guy who hit me may have been illegal, under age, without a licence, wanted for something else, drunk, high, or any or all of the above, so he ran off, but the car itself was legal and even insured.

It just meant a cold couple of hours going through police formalities at the roadside, then getting the car towed and picking up a rental (company car FTW!). What I was not expecting was for the repair process to drag out so long. While waiting for my own car, and driving various rentals, I have developed a Borat-esque attitude to gypsies…

As I said on Twitter:

That was actually a false alarm, as it turned out to be close to seven weeks. However, the rest of that prediction was spot-on. I got in my Beemer, adjusted the seat how I like it (as low as it goes) and already it felt like being in a Formula 1 car. I pootled along icy back-streets to the ring-road, and half-throttle in the merge lane felt like Mach 1. I have to admit I was grinning ear to ear with the joy of getting my own car back!

Fortunately I was keeping an eye on my speed, as the garage appeared to have reset some of the electronics, including my audible speed warning which goes off at 110% of the motorway limit (about right, given the Beemer's "optimistic" tach). I didn't really exercise the suspension or tyres, as I was on calls for most of the drive back, but that's going to be a job for the next time I'm driving back from a customer visit with no particular place to be in a hurry.

The weeks of rentals do give me an opportunity to review the two cars I had as successive replacements. Here are reviews of the Ford Fiestaand the Hyundai ix20.

Spoiler: neither of them can hold a candle to the BMW 320d.

Hyundai ix20 review

The Hyundai ix20. Wow. Where to begin?

This was my supposed "upgrade" once it became clear that the repairs to my Beemer would be taking longer than anticipated. Actually, I'd have preferred to keep the Fiesta since while the Hyundai was from a higher rental category and with a larger engine capacity, being a diesel engine in a much heavier car meant that the difference was if anything in the Fiesta's favour.

The looks were another defeat for the Korean newcomer, as they were initially generic but inoffensive, but rapidly revealed the touch of the bean-counters. Views were obstructed and dirt gathered disproportionately in door handles. Inside it was the same story: the buckle for the middle rear seat belt hung from the ceiling right in the middle of the rear-view mirror's field of view. All the surfaces were nasty to the touch, and despite this car having only twenty-five thousand kilometers on it, the steering-wheel coating had rubbed off in several places. Even superficially nice touches turned sour; for instance, I was pleasantly surprised to see a Volkswagen-esque blue glow from the instruments, but upon looking closer, found the blue to be simply painted on…

I compared this car to an Aiwa stereo, as while most of the functions were there, including Bluetooth and voice controls, they were all slap-dash, low-quality and annoying. NVH was abysmal, power was non-existent, and the radio did this weird thing where tuning into a pre-programmed station would give a few seconds of static which gradually faded into the actual radio station.

The worst aspect of this car was the handling. It takes a lot to scare me behind the wheel, but the first time I took a corner at speed in this car I was terrified. I had absolutely no idea what the front wheels were doing. This wasn't just Fiat-style lightness, this was lightness combined with a total absence of feel. More time with the car did not lead me to tune in to its handling, more the opposite. Driving in the snow was the worst, as I could only tell when the car had lost traction or was under-steering by looking out the window.

Verdict: it's better than no car at all, and if you don't care at all about cars, it's reasonably comfortable and well-equipped. However, if you care even a little, this is one to avoid. If it's given to you as a rental, haggle, bribe, seduce, or if all else fails, pay for an upgrade.

Ford Fiesta review

The Fiesta was the car I picked up on the day of my accident. Edging into my adrenaline hangover, I was glad to have any car, even a small and under-powered one, to replace my poor Beemer. However I have to admit that I warmed to the little Fiesta pretty quickly. Even in rental-spec it had nice features like steering-wheel-mounted controls for the radio, the engine was zippy and loved to rev, and with wheels at the four corners it cornered like a go-cart. Up at motorway speed the engine revved pretty high, but was never obtrusive, unlike the Fiat Punto I got last time I had a loaner. It did lack a sixth gear, which would have helped a lot with the motorway cruise.

In town the steering was precise, and while it could have given more feedback, I was never in any doubt about what the front wheels were doing. This is another area where the Fiesta was unlike the Punto, or indeed any recent Fiat. The clutch was light and responsive, and as long as I kept the revs above 2500 rpm there was plenty of torque available to take advantage of short-lived gaps in traffic. The engine really did like to rev, but somebody at Ford had decided to fit a "shift-up" light and program it to come on just shy of 2000rpm, or about 500rpm before the power band starts. I, of course, took this as a challenge to drive absolutely everywhere with the light blazing, including while parking. Yes, I am actually twelve years old.

The cabin was basic but well laid out, with plenty of storage, all the controls within easy reach, and radio controls right on the steering wheel. This last is something I believe should be standard, as these are some of the most frequently used controls in a typical drive. For many drivers in fact the radio controls are used more often than indicators (a pet peeve of mine).

I even succeeded in getting the tail to step out while late-braking on a wet roundabout, and the slide just felt so right. In true Troy Queef style, I simply catch it with a dab of oppo and I’m away.

The Ford Fiesta: approved.