Why don’t cars work like computers?

“All cars today look the same”.

To the undiscerning eye that may well be true, as might the statement “All cars today work the same way” – although, I would argue nothing could be further from the truth.


A Tesla Model S in red. Just like any other car Image copyright Tesla Motors A Tesla Model S in red. Just like any other car Image copyright Tesla Motors

Over the holidays, I rented a car from the airport. A Skoda Fabia. It’s a mid-sized estate (stationwagon) with four wheels, five seats, and an array of electronics typical in any modern car. I got in, and drove off without a further thought.

A few days later we suffered a mechanical breakdown (a rare occurrence these days, slightly more common when I’m driving, it seems). Our rental company obliged with a replacement vehicle which was duly delivered the next day. This time we were presented with a Toyota Auris. I was quite satisfied with the exchange but on driving away I noticed something very strange that I had previously taken for granted in all my years of driving – where was the control for the radio? We had already set off, and I had to take my eyes off the road for a few seconds while I fumbled around looking for the right control.

Now, I’m sure we’ve all experienced this minor inconvenience and like me, thought nothing of it, but really – it’s quite strange, don’t you think? In a world where we are led to believe that continuous re-design brings productivity improvement, and the automobile being perhaps the pinnacle of the design industry (both technical and aesthetic), why is it that no two cars operate in the same way?

I don’t mean the driving controls – we’ve had the good sense to standardise behind a wheel for steering (by no means the only choice 100 years ago), we all sit on the same side of the car (at least in the same country we do), and we all follow the same traffic rules (most of the time) – but why is it that even basic functions like turning on or off headlights, controlling the windscreen wiper, or switching off the radio are all conducted in a different manner – sometimes even between cars built by the same manufacturer?

Personal Computers, on the other hand, have been on our desks and in our homes for less than half the time that cars have been parked on our driveways or in our garages, and yet exhibit a significantly higher degree of homogeny in their design. Sure, in the 1970s and 1980s the plethora of home computers from companies such as Amstrad, Commodore, and Sinclair all came with their own operating systems, ran proprietary software and required ‘compatible’ add on devices; but today, we have a simple choice between Windows and MacOS for an operating system both of which operate in broadly the same fashion, can communicate with each other, and even the devices that we use to expand their functionality are universal.

If we use Windows we all know that to close a window we look to the top right of the screen, and to save a document we look to the top left. If we use MacOS, we know that to minimise a window we need to look to the top left, and our application selection is in the centre bottom of the screen. In the case of Windows, whether our computer is made by Dell, HP, or even Apple it’s going to work in the same way. Even if we chose to build a computer ourselves, we are going to use standard parts in standard configurations that will operate in a common way. Standard design helps us work faster and be more productive. We can stay on ‘autopilot’ and think about the task in hand rather than which lever to pull to achieve it.

If the consequence of design in the computer industry has been to steer operation from fragmentation to consolidation, then why is the same not true of the automotive industry? When I look at the steering wheel of a BMW – why is the volume control on a different side to that of a Ford, and yet the controller of an XBOX is identical in operation to that of a Playstation or a Nintendo?

I offer no answers to these questions, save a single observation. Perhaps where design has failed us in promising to reach the optimal configuration for our automobile, technology will finally remove this problem. The promise of self-driving cars will very soon become a reality, and a discussion such as this will soon be as redundant as arguments between Windows and MacOS have become today.

Whoops, did I just provoke a different debate…?

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