Touch-screen technology is a step in the wrong direction

Dear Car Talk: I’ve read your two recent columns about new safety features in cars, and I agree that they’re probably really great. However, my husband has a new car, and I absolutely hate the touch screen and most of the other controls in it, like the heating and cooling. The touch screen makes it impossible to adjust the radio without looking at the screen, and it’s also really hard to touch the correct point on the screen if you’re driving on even a slightly bumpy road. The settings for temperature also require looking at a number on a display, since the dials don’t have start and stop points. The backup camera is great, but I think they’ve crammed so much into that touch screen that more drivers are going to be distracted. Are any carmakers reconsidering this design? I hope they do before I’m ready for a new car. – Barbara

RAY: You’re right, Barbara: Cramming everything into a touch screen is dangerous. The good news is we’re starting to see a backlash against some of this silliness.

One automaker decided at some point that it was cheaper or “cooler” to eliminate the radio’s volume knob, and created a little thing you slid your finger across to adjust the volume. When we reviewed those maker’s vehicles, we found it so unpleasant to use that we said it was a deal-breaker for what otherwise was a very good car. Apparently, lots of people agreed with us. You may remember the “March for Our Volume Knobs” protests in cities across the country. Well, the automaker recently relented and added a volume knob back to newer models.

The volume knob is a perfect example. You knew where to find it by reach, and you could feel how much you were turning it up or down without looking at it. It was ergonomically perfect. And they went and screwed it up; they tried to uninvent the wheel. The same is true for other controls we use frequently, like temperature levels, fan speed and radio presets.

The good news is that the smarter manufacturers have been adding back hard buttons for that stuff, while leaving the touch screen for detailed entertainment choices and vehicle preferences that you use less frequently.

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Another example of backward thinking can be seen in today’s automatic transmission shifters. You used to be able to grab the shifter and shift from park to drive, or drive to reverse, just by feel.

Now some cars have push-button selectors or joysticks that require attention and concentration (and then a short moment of prayer while you wait to see if your gear wish was granted). When we drove a Cadillac CT6 with a standard automatic shifter a few weeks ago, it was an unexpected joy.

And while the transmission-shifter trend is still heading in the wrong direction, we’re hoping that the “everything via the touch screen” trend is peaking or, better yet, has peaked.

The best thing you can do is refuse to buy a car that isn’t easy for you to operate. Sales are what manufacturers respond to, and if you tell the car salesman that you love the car but won’t buy it because you have to take your eyes off the road to adjust the temperature, that’s the strongest message you can send.

And you just have to hope that there are more Barbaras out there than there are 25-year-olds who love their screens.

Cadillac’s starter issue could be a ground problem

Dear Car Talk: I have a 1991 Cadillac Eldorado with 140,000 miles on it. About a year ago, I began having problems with my starter. When I would try to start my car, sometimes it would start right up, and other times the starter would click several times and then start. My mechanic recommended that I replace the starter, so I did. The starter worked fine for several days, and after several days of working fine, the same problem returned. I replaced my battery with a new one, and had two different auto stores run a test on my starter, alternator and battery. The tests indicated that they were all in good shape. What else could be causing this problem? Could it be my battery cables or my ignition switch? Please give me your professional opinion. – Joseph

RAY: What makes you think I have a professional opinion, Joseph?

I doubt it’s your battery cable’s terminal ends. Since you had the battery replaced, the mechanic almost certainly made sure the connections were clean and tight. That’s standard procedure.

So, based on the age of the car, I would lean more toward a ground problem. There are ground cables that run from the battery to the chassis, and from the chassis to the engine block. That completes the starting circuit. And unless those ground cables are making good, solid contact, allowing the electrons to make their way back from the starter to the battery, the car won’t start, and you’ll get a clicking noise.

And it’s entirely possible that in the decades since the first Bush administration, when you bought this car, those ground connections have started to corrode.

When a car is old enough that you can see the ground through the floor of the car, it suggests that your ground connections may be perilous, too. And if the ground connection is corroded, rather than completely detached, that could explain why the problem is intermittent.

If I were you, I’d just have my mechanic run a new ground cable. I’d run it from the negative terminal of the battery right to the engine block, where the starter is bolted to the block. That’ll guarantee that the electrons will have a good path back to the battery.

If that doesn’t fix it, Joseph, the next thing I’d look at would be a bad neutral safety switch, which requires the transmission to be in neutral or park before it allows the car to start. Those can fail intermittently. Or you could have a bad or corroded connection somewhere else in the ignition system. But try the ground first.

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