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Smart cars, smart people?

January 24, 2010

I bought a new Prius last year. When I went to the Toyota dealership to test drive a car, my heart was set on the RAV4. But I was disappointed by the drive. With no thought of buying a Prius, I asked if I could take one for a spin – just to get a sense of the feel of a hybrid. I wanted to know what happened when you pressed on the gas/battery pedal.

Sitting in the Prius, my first impression was how cool the dashboard display is. It sits feet way from the driver – out near the base of the very slanted windshield – perfectly within the eye’s vision when the driver is looking ahead at the road. Nice. Smart engineering.

When the salesman told me how to start the car – “Put your foot on the brake and press the Power button” – I think was the moment I was sold. “How cool is that? A car that starts just like my computer! No learning curve here,” I said to myself.  And the ride was great. The car was responsive, in fact it had very nice pick-up. And the drive was smooth and the steering, tight. I bought it.

The day I picked up my new blue Prius, the sales rep gave me a 30 minute tutorial on the use of the controls. Some instruction was intuitive. Some was conceptually new. Like, the Power button was a no-brainer. But the Park button would take some getting used to. And the concept of where the keys had to be (my pocket, my purse), was counter-intuitive to my 30-year driving history. It sounded as if it would be easier, but what about the summer to winter purse changeover? Or the daytime to evening purse change-over? I’d have to remember to move the keys with my wallet and lipstick. I just figured I’d adapt. I’m a smart person.

Soon, however, I was to learn that my car was smarter than I. One day, within two weeks of owning it, I had a business meeting that I had to drive to. Arriving at my destination with just minutes to spare, I hurried out of my car, taking my purse and my briefcase with me. The exterior door handles of the Prius have a little black button for locking them. The car registers the proximity of the key that is on the owner’s person, and locks or unlocks the car. So I pressed the black button on the driver’s door to lock the car. Rather than hearing the confirming one “beep” that tells me the doors are locked, I heard three quick “beeps.”  I tried again, and again heard three beeps. In my haste I was impatient and decided I’d figure out what was wrong when my meeting was over.

And 45 minutes later I did. What was wrong was that I had left the car running. When I got it in, that display I love so much was all lit up. My car had sat in park, running silently off the battery, for the duration of my absence.

Wow, I pondered. Perhaps I was not smart enough for this car….

My Prius had tried to tell me, with its beeping talk, that the “car is running” – beep, beep, beep.

Just as I have come to know that when my computer is acting up, it is really responding to some human error – do I have too many windows open? Have I not run the virus scans or the defrag recently, etc. – well, so too the Prius.

A few days ago, I was enjoying the hands-free phone feature, chatting while I drove along a country road. When my call was finished, rather than press the hang-up-phone icon on the steering wheel, I pressed the Park button on the dashboard. Why? I don’t know.  I suspect it’s the same mind-boggle that has caused me press the Publish button, when I’ve meant to hit the Preview button when I’m working on a website. Who puts these two-syllable P-words within a half inch of each other on the screen? Don’t they know how my mind works? Actually, yes, I think they do. Because when I press the Publish button (which launches the site to its URL), I get one of my favorite messages: “Do you really want to Publish your site now?”

Fortunately, whoever designed the Prius must have known that smart people like me would, on occasion, not be so smart and might hit the Park button while driving. The engine seemed to go into something like neutral, and kept rolling along. But I had to manually put it back into Drive in order to get the gas/battery pedal working again.

I’m a little nervous about fully adapting to my smart vehicle. The main reason being, the Park button is within a couple of inches of the Power button. And after my little mishap this week, I just hope I never Power-off a Phone-call…

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