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The Coming Rental Car Crisis

by Mark Krakauer

As an experienced traveler, who's racked up over 10 million frequent flyer miles, and a driver, who prides himself on being car savvy, I reluctantly admit the truth--I am a victim of automotive confusion.

During my recent travels, upon settling into the drivers seat of a new or unfamiliar model of  rental car, more than once my confidence has been rattled by uncertainty. Where is the wiper switch?  How do I adjust the mirrors?  How do the headlights work?  Or (yes, this actually happened), how do I shut off the radio?  These and numerous other questions are increasingly provoked by aspects of unorthodox vehicle-driver interfaces that have the potential to create annoying, and even dangerous, situations.

As automobile manufacturers have constantly increased the number of models and simultaneously come up with new and different ways of operating the switches, controls and devices needed to drive the car, I see a potentially dangerous situation developing in which the drivers concentration and abilities are stretched to the limit trying to figure out how to operate various vehicle controls while negotiating traffic in a strange city.

When it takes 10 minutes to figure out how to move a seat or adjust a mirror, something is wrong.

This is most serious in the rent-a-car situation, because chances are that the driver is unfamiliar with not only the car, but also the geographical surroundings ---making for an increase in both stress and confusion which could lead to a dangerous combination of circumstances.

Yet another factor to be considered is that as the new highly complex driving environments such as BMWs I-Drive or the Mercedes Benz COMMAND system -- that can take hours to master and are frustrating to use -- migrate down the automotive ladder to the mass market vehicles used in the rental fleets, rampant confusion could take place.

The last time I had my car in for service, the loaner they provided me with had one of these all-in-one control systems.  I spent more than an hour playing with it before I could move.  Imagine getting off a multi hour flight with kids and with a vacation schedule to keep; luggage all around and a complex driver in-force system to master. I shudder.

These demands made on the driver by all the different methodologies used just to drive the car and operate the systems make the distraction caused by cell phones pale by comparison.

Jerry Wachtel, a human factors psychologist and noted automotive expert says

Will the coming rent-a-car world of 2010 look this---Is this what a reservation agent will have to say? Would you like a compact, full size, or simple to drive vehicle?"

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