Shining the light on tedious tech

2011 Audi A5 CoupeIt’s funny how a small design element can lead to an irrational dislike of a particular car. Take Audi for example; it recently pursued a policy of incorporating a ‘fairy light’ design for its daylight running lights.

Those twee lights that framed the car’s main headlights bothered me. Here was a range of cars pitched as a sophisticated mode of transport, yet was lumbered with a prominent design feature apparently influenced by Christmas tree decorations.

I understood what Audi wanted to do, though. With daylight running lights becoming more widespread, designers used the opportunity to make their mark and develop a signature ‘look’ for their cars.

With the appearance of a refreshed A5 the fairy lights have now gone, replaced by a bolder design statement more appropriate to the car’s perceived social standing. And yes, I like it now.

It’s proof, however, that it’s sometimes the trivial things that can influence a first impression. And it doesn’t matter how big the promotional budget it, either. It could be the steering wheel design – who thought flat-bottomed wheels were a good idea? – or how you control the sat-nav that causes you to utter a stream of expletives.

Context is a wonderful thing, though. When it comes to design-related issues it’s very much a subjective business. What one person likes you can be sure another will find fault with. But when you come to elements of a car that you control – switchgear, displays – it’s a different matter, and you’d like to think that the billions of euros spent developing cars was well spent.

Sometimes that’s not the case and taking a dislike to some fancy headlight design pales in comparison. Auto gearlevers that are all too easily knocked into Sport mode by accident, red on black displays that are almost impossible to read at night, display screens without an anti-glare coating that are rendered useless in direct sunlight and nowhere to put your left foot when it’s not operating the clutch pedal are just a few pet peeves.

Yes, for some these will be trivial items, but with me it’s all about ease of use. No, I’m not looking to buy a washing machine on wheels, however I do think that after a century since the first cars hit the roads such details would have have been nailed down by now.

I’m not asking for telepathic control of the car in leu of having to press a button. What I’m seeking is an attention to detail that’s sometimes been lost in the pursuit of headline-grabbing hi-tech gadgets and baffling lifestyle marketing messages. In-car Internet connectivity is great when it works, but if that same car boasts a clunky sat-nav menu or rain-sensing wipers that refuse to acknowledge the rain hitting the windscreen then it’s about as useful as a chocolate fireguard.

Call me a curmudgeon if you must but I’d like to see more attention directed towards the basics of car design and engineering at a time when whizz-bang computers and fancy-pants gadgets are starting to rule the cabin. Hopefully it won’t be long before the novelty of such things – be it lights, flashy displays or technology for the sake of it – wears thin and engineers and designers will get back to what they do best, without all the questionable distractions.

By Iain Dooley

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