Wednesday 25 November 2009

Ergonomics, Cars and Turn Signals

There's a book called "Turn Signals are the Facial Expressions of Automobiles", which deals at length with the kind of dysfunctional man-machine interfaces that annoy all of us from time to time. If it's true, then the automobiles made by Opel (the European arm of GM, at least for now) must have eaten something very nasty.

Turn signals (direction indicators for my UK readers, if any) have been operated in the same way ever since flashing lights replaced pop-up arms that stuck out of the side of the car, which is to say the early 1950s. You push the little arm up to turn left, down to turn right, and it stays there, making the corresponding lights flash, until either you straighten the wheel up after the turn, or you turn them off manually. It's simple, it's intuitive, and it's easy to build.

It's a shame that, along the way, manufacturers have never been able to agree about which side this otherwise universal control should be. So every now and then, when you rent a car, you find yourself turning on the wipers instead of signalling. Even so, it's immediately obvious what you've done, and what to do about it. Since turning the signals on and off is never an emergency, it's no more than a minor nuisance.

Sometimes it takes real genius to look beyond the mould of convention and make the leap to a new and far better way of doing things. Unfortunately genii are rare, and when the non-genius tries the result is rarely a success.

Such is the case at Opel (and their UK badge-engineered variant, Vauxhall). If something has been in use for over half a century, works well, and is familiar to every driver on the planet, then surely it must be time to come up with something gratuitously different. And so they have.

My guess is that someone on the production side worked out that the mechanism that holds the arm in place, and returns it to the neutral position as the wheel turns, represents a few dimes that could be saved in the production of every car thanks to the miracle of electronics. Who needs springs and cams when you can do the same thing with some silicon?

And so if your rental car turns out to be an Opel you will find that the indicator stalk is sprung so it always returns to the neutral position. To turn left, you push it up, the silicon equivalent of a cam and a spring remembers it is there, the signals blink, but the memory is strictly non-mechanical. This is surprising at first, but you barely notice. You make your turn, and when you straighten the wheel out afterwards another miracle of the electronic era turns the signal off. So far, so good.

The problem comes when you make a lane change. In the US of course this problem doesn't arise. People rarely signal at all, and never (in my experience) for a lane change. But in Europe people still do, and it seems polite to follow suit. Since there are no large steering wheel movements, the signal does not automatically cancel. You have to do it yourself. You can't move the stalk back to the neutral position, because it's already there. So what do you do? Well, the only option is to push it in the opposite direction, i.e. downwards if you were signalling left. This works, in that the left signal stops signalling. Unfortunately, what happens now is that you are signalling right instead. Given that you probably just pulled into the left lane, this will certainly confuse following traffic (if they pay any attention to these things). So now, how do you stop the right signal? Only one choice... push the stalk upwards. You can guess what that does. At this point, you just have to hope that the police are not close behind you, because if they are they will certainly pull you over and give you a breath test. (Well, maybe not if they are driving an Opel too, because then they will understand the problem).

I can say from experience that there exists some combination of circumstance and action that does completely turn off the indicators. You don't have to make a 360 degree turn on the highway, although it may start to feel like the only solution. However it's not something you can ever figure out or remember. Sometimes, some amount of waggling the stupid arm stops the signals, sometimes it doesn't. I've even heard of a case - certainly not from personal experience, as I'm sure you will realise - where a driver has become so frustrated at the stupid @#$^^%$@# thing that they have ended up yanking the stalk right off. (It's made of some feeble soapy plastic, that breaks very easily. No doubt this saves another cent or two on the production. I've also heard - not that I would know personally - that superglue will hold it in place well enough to last until the next rental).

My first experience of this technological leap was several years ago, in a rented Opel Zafira. It was a terrible car; if blogs had existed at the time, I would certainly have written more about it. But this the worst of its many sorry misfeatures. However I'm pleased to say the engineers at Opel are not deterred by any kind of temporary setback. My son is now learning to drive, in a Vauxhall. He swears that he will never, ever buy one - because of their bizarre and dysfunctional indicators. (And no, I hadn't told him what I thought of them).

It's a reassuring constant that when people, and companies, make mistakes, the last thing they will do is correct them, since that would be showing weakness. Instead they persevere, in full denial that they could ever have done anything wrong. Occasional lapses from such behaviour (such as the Austin Allegro's square steering wheel - and no, I'm not making it up - which indeed was corrected very quickly) are satisfyingly rare.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Your Neighbors will be Astounded by...!

Like everyone in the US, we are bombarded by glossy catalogs for things we don't want. Every day brings two or three of them: clothes, household nick-nacks, guy stuff, garden stuff, just about any stuff you can think of.

These catalogs are in fact very sophisticated examples of applied psychology. For 99% of the things in them, you have lived your entire life without realising you need them, and you're unlikely to suddenly decide you need them all of a sudden now. So the motivation to purchase has to be something else. The most frequent appeal is to the common human desire to appear better - more sophisticated, stronger, more intelligent - than the next guy or gal. It's amazing how often the headline "Your Friends/Neighbors/Workmates will be Astounded by..." appears. "Your Neighbors will be astounded to see this giant, fully illuminated, solar powered inflatable Polar Bear". "Your Friends will be astounded by this 15-place table serving in genuine Orinocan Sustainable Mahogany". And so on.

Another frequent appeal is an application of "X does Y, so if you do Y too, you'll be X too". The crudest example of this is the scantily clad young ladies who adorn car adverts, and real cars at shows. The implication is of course that if you buy this car, suddenly your life will be filled with desirable nymphets. It's obvious to even the densest person that this can't possibly be so, that having a Geo Metro Sports Edition on your driveway is not really going to expand your life like this. Yet it works, or I suppose it must or people wouldn't still be doing it.

Last week's crop of catalogs produced an extension of this that I hadn't seen before, though, pushing the notion to new extremes. It includes a pen - a pretty expensive pen, at $70. And the headline says: "Straight from Italy, the Pen I Drove Around Ferrari's Fiorano Test Track at 185 mph!". (We can leave the question of why every word Begins With Capital Letters for Another Time).

So, let me get this straight. I should want this pen because someone had one just like it in their pocket while they were driving at 185 mph. The implication must be that if I have a pen like this, then I'll have as much fun as if I was driving at 185 mph. Can this appeal possibly really work? Are there people out there who say, gosh, I must have one of these because someone drove at 185 mph with one in their pocket? Or who buy them as gifts, telling the bemused recipient, "You'll love this pen, someone you've never heard of was driving at 185 mph with one in their pocket?"

Why stop at pens? Why not socks, or underwear, or denture retainer? "Straight from Malaysia, the Pack of Tissues I Flew in a Search-and-Rescue Helicopter!" (I think that's generally considered a fairly manly occupation).

Maybe I should just get used to human nature, and the clever ways of exploiting it for profit. But I just can't.

Saturday 7 November 2009


Well, almost exactly one year after my "discovery flight", I passed my PPL-H checkride and became a qualified helicopter pilot. To my pleasure and surprise, my wife - who has never been at all keen on helis and until now has never flown in one - agreed to be my first passenger. So last weekend I did my first helicopter "Bay Tour", departing from Palo Alto towards the coast, with a slight detour to fly over the Montebello Ridge vineyards so she could see them from the air. Then out to San Gregorio, up the coast over Half Moon Bay, over the Golden Gate and back over the city. I've done this numerous times in airplanes, but the view from the heli is much better and of course you're lower too. The flight was a success from all points of view, with a very happy passenger who agreed - despite her attachment to our plane - that this was even better.

One of the hardest parts of flying helis, for me anyway, was to get a really smooth pickup. Hovering seems impossible at first, but after about five hours it's under control and getting better. Autorotations are fun, and if you're used to landing the Pitts then they don't seem too dramatic. Getting them right is tricky and takes some fairly aggressive manouvering, and (in my opinion) you can never practice them enough. But in the end, pickups were the hardest.

Here's the problem. While you're sitting firmly on the ground, the position of the controls isn't affecting anything. Hence, you have no feedback about whether they're in the right position or not. As soon as the skids completely leave the ground, you're flying, even though you're only an inch off the ground, and everything depends on the position of the cyclic and the pedals. A touch too much left cyclic and right pedal, and you're whizzing off to the left while spinning round to the right - not good, especially if you're in a confined area or on soft ground.

Instructors and textbooks say the same thing - lift the collective slowly until you're "light on the skids", correct the control position, then lift further. Easy to say, harder to get a feel for. It's just like learning coordinated turns in a plane - the instructor says, "but surely you can feel it, without even looking at the ball?" And you say (or at least I did), "errr, no, I can't". Now I can feel it, after over 1000 hours and 100+ hours of aerobatics, but it took a while.

So my experience was, you so-so-gently pull up on the collective, waiting to feel the heli come alive as the weight comes off the skids. And then it starts to turn or to move, and in an instant of panic you yank up the collective and you're three feet off the ground and you've zoomed off several feet from your starting point, before you brought things back under control. This is not the way to pass a checkride, something my instructor made very clear to me.

The fix, for me, was an exercise where I deliberately set the cyclic and the pedals way off where they should be, then, as the collective came up, gradually corrected them as I felt things starting to move. After a few times doing that, I'd overcome the panic instinct to yank on the collective, and after that it was just practice. It's very satisfying - now that I can feel what "light on the skids" means - to make small corrections just before the thing leaves the ground, and have it move smoothly and vertically through those first few inches.

The other hard thing, getting close to the checkride, was slope work, where you delberately have the weight partly supported by one skid and partly by the rotor. The amazing videos you see of helicopters touching a steep hillside, yet still flying, are all about this. Again it's all about feel for the controls during the critical moments, and tiny movements of the collective. It's a real feeling of victory when you can hold the heli, half on the ground and half off, then sooo gently let it down onto the other skid. And even better when you can smoothly lift it off again. It takes a lot of practice.

Finally, a couple more pictures from our Bay Tour. There are more on Flickr.