Fewer buttons the way to go for Honda
THE engineers working on Honda's new Acura MDX luxury sport utility vehicle were obsessed with giving customers more - more space in the rear seats, more fuel economy from a high-tech engine, as well as more apps, maps and connectivity.
But there was one feature they wanted less of: buttons.
In an effort to simplify the newest Honda vehicle on the market, the product team was determined to streamline the instrument panel. The previous MDX had 41 buttons, but the new model would have just nine.
The change was emblematic of the challenge confronting carmakers in the age of the connected car. How does a car company give customers the technology they crave, without overwhelming them with complicated controls that can impair their ability to drive safely?
"We are trying to give our customers what they want, in a way that's going to be safe and makes sense," said senior Honda engineer Steven Feit.
The car has become a mobile computer packed with new entertainment options, Internet access and a dizzying array of apps that help drivers avoid traffic jams, find parking spots and locate the nearest coffee shop.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees car safety, recently issued voluntary guidelines for carmakers to limit the visual and mental distractions that new technology can create for drivers.
Basic connectivity - such as linking a mobile phone to a vehicle's sound system - can be found in some of the least-expensive mainstream models.
Carmakers have learnt some hard lessons about pushing ahead with new, unproven technology. Ford Motor, for example, has had to revise its popular Sync system to mitigate distractions and make it easier for motorists to use.
The new MDX, which goes on sale this summer, represents what Honda says is an effort to create "synergy between man and machine". The car has built-in technology that not only delivers a wide range of entertainment and Internet functions, but also connects drivers directly to an Acura concierge who can locate a nearby restaurant and make reservations for dinner.
A voice-recognition feature allows drivers to select a destination for the navigation system or choose a phone number to call, without taking their eyes off the road or hands off the wheel.
Eliminating physical buttons on the car's console was crucial to improving safety. Having too many buttons would lead to a driver having too many decisions to make while the car was in motion. The new model limits buttons to major functions, like controlling the temperature.
As there are more distractions built into the vehicle, the car has to assist more in the act of driving. The MDX has sensors that warn drivers of potential collisions, alert them when they stray from their lane and reduce speed when an accident is imminent.
An advanced-option package includes adaptive cruise control, which can stop the car automatically if the vehicle in front of it brakes to a stop suddenly.
As complex a machine as the new MDX may be, one of its prime selling points is pretty basic - the driver can be more connected than before, but with fewer buttons to push.