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Tragic Incident Points to a Need to Build to Intuition

Our mission at DashboardSymbols.com is to make new auto technologies simpler to understand and use so that you can feel safe and secure. Electronics rarely have intuitive solutions when problems arise. We have long railed about car companies making getting in a push-button start car difficult when an electronic issue strikes, but we didn’t recognize that those same problems could lead to difficulties getting out. And now one of those problems has cost a man his life.

Inside_release2A Consumer Reports article recently cited the death of a man and his dog of heat exhaustion in Texas when he was unable to open his 2007 Chevrolet Corvette after an electronic malfunction. He was unaware of a mechanical release located near the floor below the door, as shown in the image. The article begins beautifully, stating “tragedy demonstrates time and time again, there is true value in conventionally designed controls for vehicles.” Their conclusion troubles us, however. But first, a review of this and other recent incidents that we have touched on here.

The man, 72 year old James Rogers, stepped out of a local restaurant to check on his dog, leaving his cell phone behind. It is thought that the electronic lock failed due to a loose battery cable. He and the dog had already died by the time they were noticed and freed from the car. Sadly, other news reports state that his daughter believes he may have been trying to consult the owner’s manual when he succumbed.

Earlier this year, we reported on an item out of New Zealand where an older couple had spent 13 hours locked inside their new keyless Mazda, and nearly died. They had left the key fob outside the car and mistakenly thought that it was the only way to unlock the car. The overriding assumption was that the root cause of the problem was that either the dealer did not fully explain the features of the car, or that the couple was confused by new technology because of their age (65 and 68).

Related: Wait, you were locked In the car?

BMW Inside Lock SwitchIn that same article, we related another lock-out story involving a keyless, or push button start car, this time a BMW. Their friends had used the remote to lock the car as a joke, and try as they might, those inside, a man and a woman in their 20s, could not find a way out and swore that there was none! The unlock switch, while plainly marked with the image of a door with a key in it and shown here, is placed surprisingly in the center of the dashboard just below the emergency flasher switch! Not on the doors, where our twenty somethings assumed it should be. And frankly where we had assumed it would be.

Inside_release3This image is an expanded view of the Corvette’s door release lever and icon. While the image does indicate the function of the lever, it would not be easily seen while sitting in the driver’s seat of the cramped coupe. Also, it is located where we have learned to expect to find a trunk or fuel door release, so it is quite likely that that Rogers never thought to even look towards the floor. It should be noted that this lock technology is shared by the Cadillac CTS and ELR Coupes.

Consumer Report’s states that their own reliability data shows that “problems with door locks and latches are among the most common complaints.” Their article concludes that “there isn’t any worrisome trends among Corvettes.” Looking purely at data – developed by definition after problems occur – this is certainly true. We, however, see several worrisome trends surrounding the growing love affair with electronics and the auto industry itself. We’ve cited three incidents of drivers who believed they locked in their cars. This leads us to,

  1. short of a photographic memory, ‘showing’ and ‘explaining’ new features to drivers and expecting them to read and remember everything new in an owner’s manual have never – repeat never – worked in the auto industry. Ever. No one in the industry seems capable of learning this lesson no matter how many times it is repeated. This makes the New Zealand incident the most troublesome to address and it continues the “blame the driver”, or the salesperson, mentality. That said,
  2. there is nothing intuitive about a door release on the floor below the door. GM, take responsibility for it and change it, period. The electronic lock does nothing for the owner and only satisfies something at GM. Make it part of the arm rest. Better yet, lose the unnecessary electronic release altogether and return the mechanical release as the primary, or only, release. And it follows that,
  3. there is also nothing intuitive about a lock switch located in the center of the dashboard. BMW, it too should be returned to the armrest, even though it then means a second lock is needed on the passenger door.

If you could change the behavior of the one or the behavior of the millions, which would have the greater chance of success?

Changing the one, the manufacturer, eliminates the need for the millions (drivers) to read, and frankly memorize, crucial new features or the owner’s manual. It also eliminates the need for other millions (salespeople) to somehow become effective teachers. Someone else’s dad, mom, brother, sister, son, daughter husband or wife will not have to die over something that seems simple – to those of us in the industry.

Build to intuition. Let’s not wait for data to act.

Update: We got hold of a Cadillac CTS Coupe and can add this gif (below) of the lever in action. We used it from outside the car, so we could see it well!

GM Coupe Escape Lever

And we’ve added this video discussing the growing trend towards electronic locks and latches.

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At DashboardSymbols.com, we developed two Mobile Apps to help drivers with the most common questions asked of service departments everywhere: “What is this light on my dashboard?” And “My car says ‘Key Not Detected’. How do I get into and start my push-button start car?” With these two apps, we have your back. Check them out here.

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