Control Freak

If you’re a driver, you can get into pretty much any car and drive it away, because these days they all have the same arrangement of basic controls. Obviously, it wasn’t always like that. The very earliest horseless carriages usually had a tiller to steer with (like a boat) and every one had different arrangements of levers, knobs and pedals to control the engine, the brakes and the gears. It wasn’t until about the mid 1920s that the common standard layout evolved. (Some say the Austin 7 was the first mass-production car to have a “modern” system of controls.)

Unfortunately though, it’s only the main controls which are standard. Manufacturers all come up with their own whimsical placement of the mechanisms for turning on the lights, or operating the wipers, or lowering motorised windows. I can remember failing completely to work out how to put on the internal light in a rented Vauxhall. I had to wait until the next morning, when it was daylight, so that I could read the instruction manual. (You pull out the headlights knob. Obvious?)

A lot of modern cars have two stalks, one each side of the steering wheel, to control the turn indicator and lights on one side, and the wipers on the other. But it seems to be a random decision on which is which, meaning that if you are in an unfamiliar car, you’re quite likely to indicate turns with the wipers, or start flashing when you meant to wash the windscreen. Some cars only have the one stalk, but again, that remaining stalk can be at any location around the steering wheel that the designer happened to think of, and its exact functions can only be revealed by trial and error.

wipersThere is one thing that’s moderately standardised, and completely wrong, which is the windscreen wiper control. On all but the most basic cars, you have a choice of speeds for the wipers to deal with different amounts of rain. Two, commonly: “slow” and “fast”. A more sophisticated car will have a variable speed setting, slower than “slow”, but adjustable; and there might also be a “very fast” position. I actually had one car that even had a “very, very fast” wiper speed as well. And it’s all, wrong, wrong, wrong.

Far too complicated, for one thing, and also you still only have the fixed speeds above “slow”. What motorists really need for their wipers is just one continuous speed control, which goes from “off” up to as fast as the motor will drive them. I don’t know of any car with that design, and I suppose it’s too late to get all the world’s manufacturers to change.


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