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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.

Some drivers still might find the setup process too demanding. Could car computers be the next service opportunity for car dealerships or computer fix-it people like Best Buy's Geek Squad?

CompUSA, whose CompUSA TechPro service offers an array of setup services for electronics, is considering the possibility, according to Mark Gertenback, CompUSA director of technical services.

But the idea hasn't caught on yet, even in areas catering to the rich and pampered. While the Mercedes-Benz of Beverly Hills dealership performs all the software updates necessary for the cars they sell and lease, there is currently no service offered that includes a complete setup of car automation systems tailored to individual desires.

"We do--as a courtesy service during delivery--go over the car, spending the time showing the client what these features are and how to program them, how to get into navigation and where they can find it to personalize to their own liking, to their own taste," said Sam Dalati, technical service manager at the Mercedes-Benz of Beverly Hills dealership.

Toyota dealers don't offer customized setup service either, just the customer walk-through of features upon receipt. But sometimes owners of new systems are given a CD or a DVD that comes with the owner's manual and gives the customer step-by-step setup instructions, according to Toyota spokesman Sam Butto.

There are also research projects under way that are investigating new ways to make inputting and using car computer information more palatable. Jodi Forlizzi, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has been working on a project for General Motors called MOVE, or Maps Optimized for Vehicular Environments. It operates on the premise that, like subway maps, less is more and you don't need to see everything in proper scale.

"I think we are starting to see a little bit of 'feature blow' in that people don't access a lot of these features because they don't know how, or they don't want to take the time to set them up," said Forlizzi.

Instead of displaying an Internet-style driving map--with all of its topographical, highway system and business directory information-- gives information to drivers in stages, on a need-to-know basis. It also changes scale as needed to make maps more legible at a glance.

The map is shown in stages with only the relevant turns and street names appearing on the screen as you come to them. In principle, it works like the TripTik flip-books long available from AAA, that show sections of a road at a time or the kind of hand-drawn map you might give to someone for directions.

In experiments with driving simulators, people using MOVE glanced at the dash one-fifth as frequently as they did with other leading navigation systems. They also spent less time looking at the screen when they did confer with it, according to Forlizzi.

Still, will drivers be willing to take time to set up all the customization? Or will the automaker or some service provider middleman help out? "The other way this might go is you bring your own mobile devices and the car is configured to become an extension of your network," said Forlizzi.

In that scenario, no setup would be required. A key fob or USB drive would recognize who is connecting to the car and then automatically access stored preferences via a PDA or online account. An extension of that concept could even include a new model of music ownership in which one subscription service gives you access to your personal music collection wherever you go, said Forlizzi.

Another possibility is that software makers could lend their expertise in user interface design. Automakers are already beginning to partner on projects with Apple, Microsoft and IBM.

"Remember how there was an Eddie Bauer Ford Explorer? Something like that might happen with a software company," said Forlizzi.