Back in the 50s, we had a neighbor down the street who bought a new car every year. A proud, lonely, angry man, Robert would drive slowly down the street every Sunday, honking his horn and waving at each of us poor saps doing yard work.
In 1958 or 59, I don’t remember which, he bought himself a new Chrysler Imperial. It was a magnificent hunk of Detroit steel – nearly 20 feet long, with fins four feet high and taillights that looked like little space stations. It also had an innovative Torqueflight push button transmission. The shift lever was gone – replaced by five buttons, located in a pod in the center of the steering wheel.
One Sunday in spring, I was in the garden, working on the strawberries I was trying to grow from seed. (Apparently that’s easy now. In 1959, it wasn’t). Concentrating on what I was doing, I somehow missed the first toot of Robert’s horn, and neglected to wave. Irked, and aiming to give me a full foghorn blast, Robert pushed hard, right in the middle of the steering wheel, where the horn had been on last year’s Cadillac.
The terrific crunching of steel got my attention right away, as the Imperial stopped right in front of my house. Robert had leaned not on the horn, but on the reverse button (a very effective braking maneuver, in case you’re wondering).
And apparently Robert was not alone. Despite television song and dance commercials (http://www.imperialclub.com/Movies/PushButton/PushButtonBig.avi) and a very loyal following among Chrysler fans, the push button transmission went away in 1964. Some blame a federal government safety measure mandating that all cars have the same standardized controls, so that drivers like Robert wouldn’t be confused, particularly in rental cars.
What does this have to do with today’s Toyotas?
Every day, thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of us get into cars we’ve never driven before. Usually we locate the steering wheel, brake and gas pedal, figure out how the radio works, and drive away. When it gets dark, we start looking for the headlight switch. If it starts to rain, we grab at the sticks on either side of the steering wheel. If we’re particularly conscientious, we pull over first. The point is, we know where the controls on our cars are supposed to be, and assume we’ll figure it out as we go along. Except for those radios. And the air conditioner.
But those supposedly runaway Toyotas are different. If the car’s engine develops a mind of its own, you can’t just turn off the key – you need to press and hold the “start” button for three seconds. You know, like a Windows computer. There’s a safety interlock, which keeps you from shifting into “park” or “reverse” while the car is moving. Panicked drivers expressed concern that if they shifted the cars into neutral or somehow managed to turn off the engine, they’d shut down their power steering and brakes and lose control of their cars.
Apparently they hadn’t read the manual, which explains that in the case of a loss of power, there’s a vacuum reserve that maintains steering and braking for a considerable period of time. Or that, even after that reserve is gone, the brakes and steering still work – they just take a little more effort. The manual also explains the “press and hold the Start button” routine.
Wait, what? You haven’t read the owner’s manual for your car? And you somehow missed the tap dancing, top-hatted Prius pitchman on TV?
The problem is that we have a disconnect with our technology. Everyone clamors for things that “just work,” without us having to try and understand them. The TV remote, the computer, our cars. Even our government.
We all crave simple answers to complex questions. And as H.L. Mencken wrote, “To every complex question there is always a simple answer – and it ‘s always wrong.”
So, what can we do about it? Well, tune in next week and we’ll look for an answer.
Next week – “Taking ownership”