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Are You Up To the Rental Car Challenge?

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, more than once my confidence has been rattled by uncertainty when I've settled into the driver's seat of a new or unfamiliar model of  rental car. 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?  Overcome with questions about the unorthodox vehicle-driver interfaces surrounding me, I find myself questioning aspects of vehicle operation that were once standard, but have now become challenges with the potential to create annoying, and even dangerous, situations.

Automobile manufacturers have not only upped the number of models year-by-year and created innovative features to dazzle the buyer, but they have devised new and different ways of operating switches, controls and devices. While I find this phenomenal burst of technology in modern vehicle engineering exciting, I also see in it a potential danger to drivers whose concentration and abilities may be stretched to the limit with trying to figure out how to use the various controls while negotiating their way through traffic in an unfamiliar city.  Let's face it, when determining what to do in order to move a seat or adjust a mirror takes 10 minutes, something is wrong.

The potential danger is magnified in the rental car arena because drivers often do not have time to acclimate to the vehicle they are given before heading off into unknown territory:  Coping with unfamiliar controls while trying to navigate through strange surroundings is a combination that makes for stress and confusion. I picture anxious vacationers getting off a multi hour flight with kids in tow, piles of luggage to manage and a schedule to keep. How well will they cope with mastering a complex vehicle control system?

Imagine if the new highly complex driving environments such as BMWs I-Drive or the Mercedes Benz COMMAND system -- which can take hours to master and can be frustrating to use -- migrate down the automotive ladder to mass market vehicles used in the rental fleets. It makes me think about the last time I took my car in for servicing and the dealer provided a loaner that had one of those all-in-one control systems. It took me over an hour of experimenting to get comfortable enough with it to get out on the road.

So, is rampant driver confusion the inevitable result of an industry transfixed by technological wizardry? Will the distraction caused by indiscriminate cell phone use pale alongside the demands made on the driver's attention by the diversity of new vehicle-specific controls?  Jerry Wachtel, a human factors psychologist and noted automotive expert makes the point that, if current trends continue, rental car reservation agents will soon have to ask:

 Would you like a compact, full size, or simple-to-drive vehicle?"

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