Help! I can't program my car

More sophisticated electronics can mean more time-consuming--and tedious--setup. Is help on the way? Images: Carnegie Mellon's car navigation system

Onboard computers in modern cars can save time and provide instant access to navigation, entertainment, driving assistance and even ergonomic comfort.

But that instant gratification of having "automatic everything" may require an initial level of patience previously reserved for setting up personal computers and pesky VCRs.

So how long exactly should it take to configure one of these new car computers? For one recent buyer, it's been 18 hours and counting.

While he's no expert in cars, technology analyst Dan Olds is at the tech-savvy end of the car owner spectrum. He recently bought an Infiniti G35. Not including the hour orientation with an Infiniti representative, Olds has so far spent 18 hours reading, programming, syncing, uploading, downloading and testing out everything necessary to make the most of his car's features.

"Given how much time I've devoted to the technical aspects of this car, I'm concerned about sounding either stupid because it's taken so much time or ultra-nerdy because I've spent so much time doing this," said Olds.

Olds may not be the average car owner, but he's not doing anything out of the ordinary to set up his new car. His time commitment may be closer to the norm, as car computers and their functions trickle down from luxury models to budget-priced cars in the future.

It's part of a larger trend toward more automation embedded in all cars.

"I'm not complaining. This is all really cool stuff once you get it set up. It has an integrated hard drive, rear-view camera...But the thing is, I've been in tech for 15 years. For your average car owner it's going to be a brave new world," said Olds.

Even weeks later, he and his wife are still discovering minor features they didn't know they had. For instance, his Infinity includes an elevation reader that works through a GPS system to report height above sea level.

Of course, most car owners are unlikely to match Olds and his stamina when it comes to new car setup. For instance, when it comes to rentals cars, it seems even the savviest computer engineer doesn't want to be bothered with a car that offers too many high-tech extras.

Dan Siewiorek, director of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, says that after a fellow car renter passed on a Toyota Prius in favor of a "normal car," he and his wife decided to try it out.

However, after a frustrating few minutes spent fiddling with the Prius and its interactive dashboard in order to find the air conditioning controls, the couple returned it to the rental agency for a standard model.

"It wasn't a learning curve issue, but that driving in a strange place, we just thought it wouldn't be safe," said Siewiorek.

Siewiorek had already had one uncomfortable experience in which he couldn't find the defroster in another new-model rental car while driving in San Francisco with no place to pull over. "If your eyes are off the road for a second or two you start drifting and get into serious trouble. I think people have to have something that's very easy and intuitive to use. Particularly when you have to react in traffic, you have to make quick decisions," he said.

Automakers say they realize that adding all this additional automation requires new ways to help people use it. What seems like common sense to the engineers that design car automation systems may not be intuitive to the average driver, said Siewiorek.

Many automakers are trying out voice commands and audio signals. Some are offering dials that create muscle memory where eventually the driver should remember that down-and-to-the-left does one thing and a quarter-turn-to-the-right another. Others are putting the computer screen high on the dash for better visibility.

Featured Video
This content is rated TV-MA, and is for viewers 18 years or older. Are you of age?
Sorry, you are not old enough to view this content.

Microsoft enters the laptop game with the hybrid Surface Book

This powerful 13.5-inch laptop include Nvidia graphics and a new hybrid hinge.

by Dan Ackman