There's all kinds of awful decisions to be made on car controls. The French love of stalk-mounted horns comes to mind, or maybe acres of flat touchscreens instead of controls you can feel. But I think the worst one I've encountered recently is the one that actually gets the authorities involved.
I'm talking about rear-view mirror-mounted 9-1-1 emergency call buttons. I've seen them in passing before, but I don't think the true abominability of them became clear until last week, when I was driving the new Viper TA around Willow Springs. More on that soon.
Aside from track time, they had some Vipers available to take out on the road. So, like any metabolizing mammal, I decided that sounded great and got in a nice, sinister-looking red and black one.
As I was settling into the car, making the adjustments needed so my short little body could ably control and see out of this monster, the screen in the center of the dash flashed an ominous message: 911 EMERGENCY CALL IN PROGRESS or something like that.
My first thought was "How the fuck did the car know what I was planning to do with it out there in the desert where nobody could see us?" quickly followed by "How the fuck do I get this to hang up before the cops pick up?"
Luckily, there was a big CANCEL button on the screen which I jabbed at with the same sort of motion I'd use on the doorbell of the cabin I found while being chased by a yeti. The call disconnected, and I took a moment to figure out what the hell happened.
What happened was bad design. When I went to adjust the inside rear-view mirror, my thumb naturally rested on the flush-mounted, visible-only-from-below 9-1-1 button. Having a one-shot emergency call button like this is certainly a good idea, but I can't think of a worse place to put it.
There's two reasons for this: first, as I discovered, it's way, way too easy to set off accidentally. Accidentally turning on the wipers or popping the trunk is one thing, but accidentally calling the emergency police/rescue/fire line is a very different thing entirely. All of a sudden you go from looking a bit silly to involving multiple municipal agencies. Even if they will very likely determine the mistake and get off the call with you in seconds, it's still added stress on the system that it just doesn't need.
Plus, in the event of an actual, panic-filled emergency, having a nearly invisible button hidden on the underside of the rear-view mirror seems like an awful idea. In a panic, you're not likely to look up from beneath the mirror to see it, and pushing a button on a rearview mirror isn't exactly the most intuitive or easy action to do. Why isn't the button somewhere easily noticeable and accessible on the dash, like the hazard light switch is?
Right now, this button seems ideally designed to be activated only by accident, and to remain cleverly hidden in any actual emergency situation. That's pretty much as much of a failure as a 9-1-1 button can be. The Chrysler engineers even acknowledged the issue, saying it's from a supplier and they'd like it changed, and in the interim they made sure to put that big CANCEL button on the screen.
This isn't an issue with the Viper, or even just Chrysler, which is why I didn't want to bring this up in the Viper review. Similar designs span manufacturers and models, and they're all pretty awful.
This needs a redesign. If it's important enough to include at all, it should be important enough to make actually work.