So You Think You Can Drive? Car guys flunk new-car test

August 4, 2010

Two cars, five car guys and four tasks:  Equals total chaos

You know the automotive blabbermouths in your workplace.  They regale you with stories of their car-savvy prowess claiming only inexperienced motorists could ever mistake a throttle for a brake pedal or not know how to stop a car.

I constructed four simple tasks, set up two different GM vehicles (Cadillac SRX and Chevrolet Impala) and assigned five car guys to

  1. Stop the engine.
  2. Shift the car into park.
  3. Set and Release the parking brake.
  4. Override the transmission/brake pedal interlock.

Simple, right?  Not so.

I've chosen Scott to represent the difficulties one encounters.  When asked to stop a Cadillac SRX engine, he grabbed the knob that operates the motorized pedal adjuster.  He couldn't find the keys because this car has a keyless start/stop system.  Since Cadillac places the pushbutton start switch on the dash ahead of the steering wheel and wiper stalk he couldn't see it from the driver's seat.  Not one car guy found the start button without prompting.  Many remarked that even if they owned this car " I'd never find the button; it's poorly engineered."

In contrast, everyone found the Impala's steering-column mounted ignition switch.

Shifting into park proved vexing.  I added one stumbling block that stumped each car guy.  I put the Caddy in "Sport" mode.  Then, I said, "shift into neutral or park."  Most found the console-mounted shift lever, but when they tried to push it forward they discovered that the car remained in drive.  Each noticed that the shift lever didn't align with the console's PRND placard.  None noticed the shift indicator inside the left-most instrument-panel gauge.  Sport mode popped up in the speedometer's trip computer but no one understood that meant the shifter could only step up or down forward gears unless you slide the lever to the right.

The Impala presented an even more baffling situation:  the console-mounted lever is surrounded in plastic wood.  GM didn't provide any indication of gear selection here, although all found the dashboard's PRND display.

Caddy's electric parking brake baffled every tester.  Most thought the hood release, which is a lever located where many cars have their step-on parking brake, was the parking brake.  Since GM doesn't illuminate the parking brake button but instead relies on the info screen text to offer guidance, none could determine whether the brake was on or off.  Other vehicle makers that use electronic parking brakes design their parking brake buttons to flash or turn bright yellow to guide your fingers and indicate whether you've set the brakes.

The final item proved impossible.  None of the GM vehicles had a transmission/brake pedal interlock override.  And they need it.  The two-year-old Impala's was faulty.  One couldn't shift out of park even with the brake pedal depressed.  On some cars, there's a provision for temporarily disabling the interlock should it not release.  GM advises calling a tow truck.  I took a screwdriver, popped off the shift's fake-wood panel, then unsnapped and removed a black-plastic insert underneath it.  This allowed the dexterous to slip a finger underneath the right side of the shift lever where one could press the shifter release button.  One tow saved, not one car guy knew how to get the car out of park.  Most tried jiggling the steering wheel even though the Impala's shifter was one the floor.

Federal rules led carmakers to illuminate dashboard and floor mounted controls, during the 1970s.  Apparently, one can skirt this purpose by incorporating those functions into trip computers and tiny dashboard displays.

Each car guy thought something was wrong with new-car controls or placement.  One summed it up, "this is a dangerous mess."

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