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Dear Engineers: No More Clever Gizmos, Please: Jason H. Harper

2011 BMW X5
The 2011 BMW X5 interior. When a BMW blinker is activated, you tap the stalk to cancel rather than pushing it in the opposite direction. Often confusing to new BMW owners, the driver could turn on the right indicator when trying to shut off the left blinker. Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

Every time I make a lane change in a BMW, I feel like an idiot.

It’s a blinker thing. When I turn the left indicator off, I somehow activate the right one. I end up clicking the stalk up and down a half dozen times, not so much announcing a turn as that I’m a schizophrenic tourist with commitment issues.

As it turns out, once a Bimmer blinker is on, you tap the stalk to cancel it rather than pushing it the opposite direction, as in other cars.

Dear engineers: Redesigning the blinker is not clever. It’s annoying.

It’s one example of idiosyncrasies that drive owners nuts. Every carmaker has wonky design foibles, almost always the case of engineer over-think, lawyer interference or an automaker just not paying attention.

Sometimes it’s a matter of poor placement of a control. Mercedes-Benz puts a long column on the left side of the steering wheel that looks like the blinker but is actually the cruise control -- a function I use as often as an electric turkey carver. (The blinker is the less obvious stick just below it.)

To make matters worse, this is no simple cruise control. Mercedes’s Distronic Plus maintains a certain distance between you and other cars, even bringing you to a stop in stalled traffic. So after unwittingly turning it on, I feel like I’ve activated the people-killer Skynet system from the “Terminator” movies.

Fretting Lawyers

Next gripe is for the U.S. automakers. We know your phalanx of attorneys are worry-warts, but please stop with all those electronic gongs, beeps and buzzing chimes that come when we open doors, insert keys or don’t put our seatbelts on in record time.

My father’s 2008 GMC Sierra pickup makes more electronic noises than R2-D2 in “Star Wars.” Lucky for dad that his hearing is iffy, as it drove me to the brink. For heaven’s sake, I know the door is open -- I’m getting out.

After a week in the Ford Fiesta, I was convinced that Ford put together a focus group to determine the most annoying noises known to man. The less-than-dulcet tones that come with opening a door actually made me nostalgic for the 1980s-era cars which robotically announced, “Your door is ajar.”

(Incidentally, the most tolerable auditory alert comes from BMW, a light gong that is musical and Zen.)

If I can afford an expensive car with gobs of power, I don’t need GM hovering over me like an overprotective mom. Yet the $64,000, 556-horsepower Cadillac CTS-V Coupe I recently tested will not allow the use of fundamental parts of its navigation system while actually on the move.

No Directions

In other words, if the wheels are turning, my front-seat passenger cannot program in a destination: The touch-screen commands become inoperable. Sorry, but that’s exactly when I need directions -- when I’m lost and actually driving someplace.

Navigation systems are a major source of complaints I get from passengers. The Japanese generally make the best. Within moments of tinkering, you can program in a destination, find a radio station and get moving. Honda’s cheap Fit hatchback bests most luxury cars, and the Koreans aren’t far behind.

The Germans treat the navigation interfaces like a game of technological one-upmanship, delivering radically different systems such as BMW’s inscrutable, first-generation iDrive. Even today, best settle in for a fortnight to learn their operations.

Then there’s the British. Drop a huge pile of cash on any Bentley or Aston Martin and you’ll end up with fuzzy graphics and an arcane interface which make the original Atari game console seem revolutionary. By these standards, the Brits would never have got off the island to colonize the world.

Video Game

Speaking of video-game-worthy graphics, the latest hybrids have super snazzy graphics that give too much information, as if we were playing the newest version of “Halo” rather than driving. Most present a complex diagram of the moment-by-moment flow of energy between battery, engine and wheels. A mechanical engineering degree is optional but wouldn’t hurt.

You’ll get a series of screens to scroll through in your spare time in the new Chevy Volt or Porsche Cayenne Hybrid, so you can parse every ounce of energy usage.

Ford’s Fusion Hybrid actually “grows” green leaves on the screen, indicating how efficiently you’re driving. It’s so pretty! Oh, I’m expected to keep my eyes on the road?

Finally, while American drivers demand a proliferation of cup holders, I’d be happy with a cubby for my cell phone. Car designers must be aware of the omnipresence of mobiles, so is it too much to ask for a simple niche which will hold a smart phone securely and upright, so I can see who is calling? I promise both the attorneys and other drivers that I won’t pick it up and text.

I grant that many issues which plague drivers can be solved by one simple solution -- but as far as I’m concerned, reading the owner’s manual is only for quitters.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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