I had this idea for a cartoon once. It was a onepanel cartoon, where a guy’s lying in the road under Prius that has apparently just run him over. For those of you not from Santa Monica, where every third car is a Prius, a Prius is a Hybrid Toyota, which, when it stops at an intersection, the engine immediately shuts off.
Okay, so in my cartoon, the pedestrian’s under the Prius, except for his head, and he looks up and the driver, and, genuinely impressed, he says,
“Boy! These cars are quiet!”
There you have it. Not exactly a product feature Toyota wants touted on a Super Bowl ad –
“The Prius – so quiet, you’ll never see it coming.”
The problem here is that they made it too good. “Too good” meaning too good for “Man In The Street” – in this case, literally – consumption. As a result of our life experience, we develop certain expectations. One of them being that approaching cars make noise.
You’re crossing the street, you hear a car coming, and you look up. You’re crossing the street, and you don’t hear it coming – because it’s a Prius – and you could die.
This is unquestionably not as good. Even though it was meant to be better.
It is understandable how this happens. You can imagine surveys asking prospective car buyers:
“Which type of car would you rather drive – a quiet car, or a noisy car?”
Excepting those “Look at me!’ kind of drivers – the kind who deliberately remove their mufflers so when they race by, dead people in their graves go, “What was that!” the vast majority of survey respondents would check the box marked,
At that point, the marketers would inform the engineers of the customers’ preference for quiet cars, and the engineers, being congenital problem solvers, which is the source of their rewards and advancements in the company, make the “leap” in their heads that, “If customers like quiet cars, then they’ll really like really quiet cars. And if they really like really quiet cars, they’ll go crazy for cars that make no noise whatsoever.
Overlooking, in the process, one troubling, unintended consequence:
People don’t hear the car coming, they don’t look up, and they’re a traffic fatality.
Which is a definite design flaw.
Now this is hardly a novel problem in the arena of advancing technology. In a similar, though less obituarial situation, when they invented the typewriter, they arranged the keys such that the most frequently used letters were the easiest to reach. Easier access to those keys, to the typewriter inventors, seemed to be a sensible idea, based on the belief that,
“Easier is better.”
A belief for which there is ample precedent. It’s easier, for example, to open a tin of peaches with a can opener than with a rock. That’s why today, when people want to open a tin of peaches, they reach into their drawer, and there’s no rock, the rock having been replaced by the easier-to-use can opener, much to the chagrin of rock salesmen, who were now reduced to advertising their product as easier to hit people over the head with than a tree.
You see, it’s always about “easier.”
It turned out, however – going back to the original letter-key arrangement on the typewriter – that the arrangement they came up with was too easy.
Because of the “helpful” way the typewriter keyboard was set up, with practice, people began typing too quickly. “What’s wrong with that?” you ask. The whole point of the typewriter was to replace the considerably slower modality of writing by hand, which, in turn, had replaced the monumentally slower practice of chiseling messages into a big slab of granite.
When people typed too quickly – because of the “user friendly” letter-key placement – the typewriter keys got all snarled together, rendering the typewriter entirely useless. Another commercial you don’t want to see in the Super Bowl.
“The typewriter – So fast, it doesn’t work at all.”
In the case of the typewriter, a solution was found. That solution was to rearrange the keyboard more inconveniently, and therefore, more inefficiently, slowing the typists down enough that the typewriter keys were no longer getting snarled, while continuing to make typewriting faster than handwriting, thus retaining its popularity for speed, not to mention legibility, since nobody has ever said, “I can’t read your typing.”
Problem solved. Making things worse made them immeasurably better.
That is the lesson here: Worse can be better. For example, if they added an, otherwise unnecessary, hum to my now totally silent computer printer, I would not keep forgetting to shut the damn thing off.
Similarly, if they added a “Grainy Button” to my HDTV, I could once again be able to watch the shows, without being unduly distracted by crow’s feet and cratered complexions.
Which leads to my plea, and if there are enough of you out there who agree with me, we can get up a petition, and send it to Toyota.
I know you hate this, because you’re engineers striving for perfection, this is an this is an insult to your mission, expertise and integrity, but please:
Add a noise to the Prius, before somebody not in a cartoon
Ends up on the pavement.
A rib-tickling fact. At the Toronto Hebrew Day School, I had a classmate named Ricky Green. Ricky's birthday was on March the 17th.