Just Give Me a Master Caution, OK?

DadRed’s car has too many lights. Far too many lights. I can’t tell what is “car is about to die” important and what is “Hi, I see you are driving. Would you like to use my template?” If Microsoft’s un-lamented Clippy was a car, it would appear on the dash of this vehicle.

When everything has a chime, horn, indicator, or light, the driver (or pilot) develops information overload. Like an electrical circuit, this leads to load shedding. What is important? Or what looks most important? That gets my attention. Ideally, this is the road, the mirrors, and then the speedometer and so on. In reality? whatever is orange or red and flashes catches my eye. Even if it is only a report that the speed limit on this bit of road is now 45. This is not helpful.

Apparently, car people don’t talk to airplane people. Aeronautical engineers have already learned that pilots tune out warnings that sound too often, or too early. Minor alerts should not be large, red, and flashing, or people get conditioned to ignore large, red, flashing lights. Too many similar sounding warnings causes the same problem. We ignore the honking. This leads to the (in)famous “Why didn’t you hear the Tower telling you that your landing gear was still up?”

“I couldn’t hear the radio over the warning horn, sir.” Which the pilot ignored, because it always sounded when he did this, this, and that. Since he had to do those things every time he landed, well, you know what happened.

My pickup has a master caution. Alas, it also only tells you what needs attention once, when you start the car. Thereafter the light stays on, and you might not be sure if this is “change the oil” or “gas cap is dangling” or “pull over because you have no oil and the engine is about to lock.” Give me a dedicated engine-things light, please, or a secondary things-of-pending-need light. Or just trust me that I know when to change my oil.

SIGH. Car people have not learned. The cluttered display gets ignored. DadRed’s car, at one point during a normal drive, had twelve different alerts, indicators, and other things on the main instrument panel, plus the speedometer and the gas-efficiency indicator. No tach, no oil pressure, no engine temp. You know, the important things. Toss in the secondary computer display, and gadzooks, there are too many lights.


38 thoughts on “Just Give Me a Master Caution, OK?

  1. It’s not just cars. Remember what used to be the simple “Amber Alert” on roadside signs, to indicate a missing child? Now the bureaucrats have added “Silver Alert”, “Clear Alert” (no idea what that one means) and others. I’m waiting for the “Polka-Dot Alert” or the “Rainbow Alert” (no prizes for guessing what that one will mean!).

    By multiplying the alerts, they’ve merely ensured that none of us will pay any attention to them. They’ve become just another roadside distraction, like advertising billboards.

    • Coordinated Law Enforcement Adult Rescue.

      ….it basically makes it so they can do like the old radio announcements in cartoons and say “hey emergency alert, here’s who’s missing, here’s the subject.”

      I hate the stupid names, but I do like the idea.

      The annoying PSA signs do bother me, though.

      • Here, they just have the cellular and land-line telcos mass-dial every phone in some radius, blithering not just about missing children, but trash day reschedculed, might be windy tonight, city offices closed due to holiday, etc. I can’t even block them, because they always call from a different number, often from an entirely different area code. (and out of state, at that)

        That long ago went from “information” to “harassment.”

  2. As near as I can tell, whatever passes for human interface design in the auto industry is heavily influenced by video gaming. Blink trumps effective.

  3. I miss gauges.

    My car has a very loud alarm when it loses traction, but a high threshold so it doesn’t go off under normal driving conditions.
    I must say that it’s not at all helpful to be trying to recover from a skid, and suddenly having the electronic equivalent of a tray of silverware dropped down the stairs to you know you were in a skid. (Thanks. Totally hadn’t noticed that the car is pointing a different direction than it’s moving. However did we survive without this technology?)
    In contrast, the warning for overheating is a small, dim, red light that is not in the drivers direct line of vision. (I discovered this when I lost the serpentine a two years back. Fortunately, I was actively scanning to try and figure out why the engine was suddenly sounding different.)

    Phil, that’s not fair to video games. Game developers put a lot of effort into the UI of video games, trying to ensure the player has the information they need, without extra stimuli to distract from the game.

  4. Nuclear power plants have gone through a phase where everything from reactor over pressure/over temperature to an HVAC chiller trip giving the same alarm in the control room. TMI got people at least thinking about prioritizing control room alarms, but some engineers still think their system or sub-system needs to be have alarms for every parameter in the control room. Computerized displays have made it possible to assign priorities to alarms, but have also made it possible to monitor and alarm many more sensors adding complexity and confusion. I know it’s a long shot, but people that operate the equipment should be consulted regarding layout and alarm presentation.

    • After TMI, the electrical engineering society mag (IEEE Spectrum) did a piece on human interface design in nuke power plants. One thing they showed was an operator-changed improvement. The control rods were two flavors (I’m not a nuke engineer, so my terminology will be off), one for gross changes, another for fine. The OEM levers were originally the same, but somebody replaced them with beer tap levers. One long, and another stubby.

      My first car (’64 MGB) had gauges, while our newest one has a couple of displays; Honda seems to have given some thought about interface design; it’s rather better than the ’12 and ’16 Subaru Foresters we have. OTOH, I don’t drive enough miles to have encountered the various warnings that can crop up. On the gripping hand, the ’19 Ridgeline has the most usable and convenient tire pressure measurement system. Being able to know which tire is low is handy, and being able to swap winter vs summer tires with no special intervention on the sensor/computer setup is really good. It’s not practical to change sensors on the Subarus, so the winter tires have no sensors. And, on the ’16, I”ll get email saying I have “low pressure” after I put the winter tires on.

      • Back in Days of Yore, aircraft had identical knobs on the handles for propeller (gear shift) and throttle (gas pedal). That got changed in most designs. Flap and landing gear likewise. Now, many planes have a round knob on the gear switch, and a flap on the flap switch. But there are exceptions, especially on older planes. So when a “helpful” check airman decides to “raise the flaps” on a plane without telling the PIC, and flips the “flap” lever when the plane is going fast enough to override the “weight on wheels – don’t retract” sensor . . . That was over $100,000 of helpfulness (props, engines, cowlings, and so on.)

        • Yikes! In the late ’68s, a friend let his younger sister (freshly licensed) drive his 4-speed GTO. We never found out how she managed to shift to reverse at speed, but she did, with an amazing amount of damage.

          Human factors engineering seems to be largely absent from a lot of designs, both for hardware and software.

      • > tire pressure

        A company van I used to drive had a whole array of idiot lights. One that was always lit was an icon of a menorah. Nobody else knew what it meant, either. Several of the vans had them lit up.

        It eventually turned out that the menorah meant “tire pressure is low.” Management anger rolled downhill against the drivers, that we were so careless with company property. Anger rolled back uphill when I waved my hand at the ass-chewing meeting and reminded them that vehicle maintenance was not part of our job description, that they had removed the owners’ manuals from all the vehicles (so they wouldn’t be stolen?), and that they were paying people whose job description *was* to maintain the vehicles, and they signed off on them *every shift*.

        I understand about “international illiterate icons” being cheaper than market-specific markings, but they conveyed no information beyond “a light is on”. (which was of no interest to the maintenance people anyway) The picture-think people always think their doodles and scrawls are perfect and unambiguous, while the rest of the world just looks at them and says, “whatever.”

        • Beats the guys who did the company maintenance for our van… they reprogrammed it so that it read as ‘correct pressure’ for roughly half of the pressure it was supposed to have.

          Thank God for the internet, or we would still be driving around with the check pressure light on because I read the pressure inside the door.

          • For those wondering, it was something like turn the key on without starting the engine, push the horn five times, turn the key as far as it could go in the *opposite* direction, push the horn three times, set the tire pressure to the correct level, turn the key on without cranking the engine, push the horn five times, turn off the van.

        • “The picture-think people always think their doodles and scrawls are perfect and unambiguous, while the rest of the world just looks at them and says, “whatever.””
          Yup. I don’t grok Egyptian, or Linear B, or whatever those are supposed to be.
          And those pictograms turn up in all sorts of places (the Web, user manuals, and so on, as well as instrument panels), generally without footnotes for the… er… what’s the word that’s like “illiterate” only for someone who can’t decipher pictograms? Is a new word needed?

  5. Yes!I have always felt that too many alarms means they all get ignored. There needs to be a clear way to know what is serious and what isn’t.
    Allied with that is the oush for “assistance” in cars – cameras, backup sensors, blind spot detection, automated braking, etc.
    My understanding is that large aircraft are doing it also, where the computer does the flying.
    The problem with either craft is that the driver needs to know what is “normal” and enough to take over when “not normal” happens.
    For example, I know kids with drivers licenses who don’t know how to back up without a camera. I also know people who have had their cameras go out and had to wait to afford the repair… Potentially a bad combination.

  6. Yes! Different grades of summary alert, corresponding to levels of urgency… plus some way of seeing what the nature of the alert is.
    With all these video screens infesting contemporary dashboards, informative messages ought to be available – brief descriptions of urgent problems can pop up along with the Big Red Light, and details of maintenance-required things (as well as general CANbus / OBD stuff) bloody well ought to be available on some built-in display while parked.
    ‘Twould also be helpful if the “door open” indicator indicated which door(s) to check, the TPMS indicator indicated which tire(s), and so on. Better still if TPMS could actually provide per-tire pressure readings, for tires with working sensors.

    • The ’19 Ridgeline does all that, at least on the model I have. (It might have been the top-end model for that year; I *really* wanted the smart cruise control and blind-spot indicators, due to some interesting eye issues.)

  7. The darn thing is most modern cars have a frickin’ huge display. They also HAVE all the information, the various engine controls need it to properly moderate the engine and have it operate optimally. Just give the operator a way to VIEW the alternator, oil pressure, coolant temp and assorted levels IF the system has the information. Even being able to see the alternator from time to time would let you know the battery is getting long in the tooth instead of waiting until it won’t crank and you have to call AAA. And as for gauges every modern car seems to have a Tachometer. As 95%+ of cars in america are automatics, what the heck use is a tach? Sure if you have a flappy paddle gear box YOU can shift it, but unless you’re stone deaf AND brain dead you can tell when the RPMs are high.

    • Drawing steam gauges on a modern display is straightforward enough. If only we could install our own apps on the dashboard computers… and if that sort of data were routed from the various ECUs to the computer that handles the big display, which I’m guessing it isn’t because that would require anticipation that there might be novel future uses of the equipment, which doesn’t seem to be a thing in Corporateland.
      (Wait… Tregonsee? You don’t need this stuff; just use your sense of perception to monitor engine status.)

      • Perception doesn’t automatically handle sensing of things that are time dependent, especially frequency related things

          • It’s been so long since I’ve read the books that I cannot recall what they say about that.

            I was simply thinking that Perception clearly said where things are currently in space, but I don’t recall that it saw the past or the future.

            Mentor’s Visualization of the Cosmic All could do that, but it clearly took more jets than simple Rigellian Perception.

            I also thought “yeah, from a car some of the information I would want would be time domain, or frequency domain”. Erratic motions that might not be apparent at the times I am paying attention, etc.

      • It’s kind of tempting to get an OBD2 plug and use your phone to get the data, but come on the car already cost $20K can’t the manufacturers provide that? I suppose it might be nice to add apps to your car, but somehow the concept of that gives me willies. Probably because I’ve worked programming IOT hardware and know just how easy that is to screw up 🙂 .

        • Oooh, right. The apps would need to be able to read CANbus data, but you wouldn’t want them to be able to change anything!
          And expecting any developer in this corner of the space-time continuum to get that right, well, I look at “smart” phones, and document-viewer apps, and… it’s truly amazing how many security holes can exist where they simply shouldn’t be.
          (Wanders off pondering apps that mess with valve timing and suchlike engine parameters, and thinking what the EPA’s reaction might be.)

        • The automobile designers are already contributing to a bunch of security issues that they should not be.

    • My theory is that many modern cars have a tachometer because a) the car market now is global, and b) automaker companies are run by cheap bastards who try to minimize the amount of redesign that must be done for different markets. Thus, cars sold in the United States have daytime running lights, which are not required by US law, because the automakers want to sell the same cars in Canada, where daytime running lights are required. I’ve heard that while the automatic tranny is standard in the US, the manual is standard in Europe, to such an extent that Over There the automatic is known as an “American transmission.” Thus, cars made for the American market have tachometers so that it’s that much easier to put a manual transmission into them for the European market.

      • My truck has a tach, but that’s because some operation conditions require keeping an eye on the tach (really, really low gear, for example). I like that I have three primary gauges, two are needle. Temp is also needle, as is gas. There’s digital speedometer, too, but the mechanical seems more accurate.

        • I have one vehicle with a CVT (of sorts) and a tach… there’s a mark on the tach to show when the PTO is at nominal operating speed. Just used it this afternoon, tach and all.

      • It is true that Europe does favor manual transmissions although as automatics and CVT transmissions have become far more sophisticated and capable this is becoming reduced. And if you do not know the torque and horsepower peaks and the redline of your engine it is still just eye candy or a way for you to act as a rev limiter. Unless you’re really trying to push the vehicle it won’t matter. In a High end sport coupe it maybe makes sense, in a stripper Toyota corolla or a mini van ir’s just ludicrous. Add to that that consoles seem to be moving to all glass due to manufacturing and cost constraints (one data line far cheaper and easier to run than all the old physical cables for the guages) and it really is a style thing.

  8. This somewhat relates to other things that may need attention.

    Forex, politics and policies.

    And the sons of bitches that insist that talking loudly about an issue, and making other people talk loudly about the issue, and bend, is utterly necessary. That insist that doing things requires /group/ engagement, and shared emotional intensity, etc.

    Whether or not they realize that screaming about 1,001 issues confuses and disorients people, the result is that ordinary people adjust their thresholds a bit, and decide that maybe they can continue to ignore.

    Similar with the noisy com channels that are social media, phones, etc. The assumption is that no one could ever be reclusive enough to simply drop things.

    I would like to rave more on this, at great length, but cannot really afford to do so at the moment.

  9. I expect at least half the insanity-like the cameras for backing up-are mandated by idiot legislators who don’t drive themselves in the resulting designs.

    My next car will be a Model T. Or maybe a horse. (Well, I wouldn’t have to buy food for a horse . . .)

  10. Our van is good, EXCEPT that it has a warning chirp.

    Nobody knows what the warning chirp means.

    It was going off somewhat regularly when the horn didnt’ function. We got that fixed, and it stopped for a few years.

    It went again a few times when the AC was drained by someone who didn’t know how to service the AC (or maybe was creating an issue that would “need” fixing).

    But we DON’T KNOW and there is NOTHING in the manual or anything.

    • Oh, chirps…
      A couple of years back, there was a mysterious electronic attention-getting sound happening, occasionally, in the Younger Prius. We spent much time speculating on what might be trying to get our attention.
      If memory serves, it turned out to be the aftermarket GPS warning of a possible speed trap. Either that, or some dangling thing was occasionally hitting a touchscreen inappropriately, getting the “that is not a valid menu button” beep. (If it was the GPS, it would have been the same one that thinks the spoken phrase “gauge on top” means “stand by for new destination.” Electronic gadgets is weird.)

  11. Yep, I miss master caution panels and REAL steam gauges… My previous vehicle had one of those mystery bongs that went off occasionally. Found out that it was a weight on seat bong for the passenger’s seat seatbelt not being locked… sigh… And just putting my burger and fries in the seat was enough to set it off, until I took the burger out… Grrrr…

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