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Toyota Prius Dash Board
High tech instrument panel of current model Toyota Prius encourages fuel conservation with an almost game-like display and heads-up speedometer.

A Prius Saved My Life

Dashboard design encourages safer driving

By Patrick Justus

What's your hurry?

I've been asking myself that question lately. More specifically, I'm wondering why all of us seem to be going as fast as we can. Shall I just chalk it up to human nature; are we born to speed? Or could it be that we are being pushed to go fast by the people who design our transportation? Let's consider the possibility that we are being driven to speed by design. If someone is challenging us to go fast, maybe we should slow down for a moment to consider. (At least take the time to read the rest of this essay.) About a year ago, something happened to me that encouraged me to pull out of the fast lane. What follows are some musings from the meditation lane.

Let's suppose that we are being externally motivated to go fast. Optimistically speaking, we all rise to the challenges offered us. Speaking for myself, a decidedly non A-Type personality, if you dangle any carrot in my face long enough, I'm certain to gobble it down. Suppose we call this tendency to accept a challenge the "Go for It Syndrome." I am fond of this expression because it tacitly admits the huge influence advertising has assumed in motivating us to push forward. Nowhere is the media push to excel more obvious than in the production and distribution of automobiles. Cars are designed to challenge the driver. Looking at the inherent design of cars, I've been recently inspired to ask, "What drives the driver?" Right now, the simplest answer I can come up with is this: the speedometer.

That little red arrow promising new frontiers of speed shouts challenge to us by design. The function of cars is to get us from Point A to Point B as fast as possible. The speedometer taunts us with the irresistible goal of achieving the ultimate in design potential. Promises of 100 or 120 mph tempt us from the time we first toddle into our parent's car. Remember the first time you saw that red arrow, promising unheard of speeds to the daring? Didn't you ask the driver why he or she wasn't going as fast as the car was made to? "What's a matter, Pop, you chicken?"

Like many of us, I started out life in the fast lane. Tickets could not deter my urge for speed, nor could the subsequent insurance rates. Traffic school, with warnings of gory consequences for speeders, did not faze me. Frankly, I felt as you probably do, that I have the innate duty of every modern to use technology to its utmost. No shirker of duty I; I would meet the challenge of the speedometer. I'm sure you know what I'm getting at here. I've seen you drive.

Things have changed for me. Last year I took delivery of a Toyota Prius. The geniuses who designed the Prius rethought the car concept from the wheels up, all the way up to the nut behind the wheel and the displays on his dashboard that drive him.

The differences between the dashboard of my Prius and conventional automobiles are obvious on first inspection. First of all, the Prius does not have a conventional speedometer. The speedometer is now in a non central location and it isn't a red arrow anymore. It looks more like those digital read outs the cops put in front of schools to warn you of excess speeds. Furthermore, front and center on the dashboard is a tiny television with a beautiful green graph that shows me how much gasoline I am burning up at any moment. If I stomp on the gas, the little bar graph disappears disappointingly. If I take my time and I am very careful, the bar graph shoots up to the top! I win! This little video game rewards me, not for speed, but for fuel economy (which means, basically, going as slow as possible).

Instead of being challenged by my car to hit 100 miles per hour every time I glance down at my gauges, I'm encouraged to get 100 miles per gallon!

The Prius was designed to be as kind as possible to the air we breathe. The Californians who designed my Prius intended to reward the driver for participating in the effort to burn as little fossil fuel and expel as few pollutants as possible. Thus the absence of a speed arrow and the advent of the bar graph video game are, I'm pretty sure, conscious efforts to encourage the Prius driver to aim for maximum fuel efficiency. Jack rabbit starts and stops on a dime cost me points in the game. Easing into traffic and gradually moving up to a reasonable speed gives immediate reward.

It's only when I noticed the design intentionality of my Prius that I began to wonder whether other cars weren't built for speed for explicit but not immediately obvious purposes. I leave the reader to speculate what exactly those purposes might be. I don't want to get into questioning national energy policy and potential ties to the oil industry.

Whatever the secret purposes behind the speedometer conspiracy, the change in my driving habits since I started driving the Prius have been spectacular! I think I can claim that not only has the Prius changed my life, the Prius has saved my life! Instead of charging through traffic at the highest possible speed, I now poke along in the slow lane. Just before obtaining the Prius, I had a number of very close calls in which a dangerous combination of excess speed, aggressive impatience, and general weariness nearly melded my vehicle with surrounding competitors.

When I tell friends and acquaintances about my conversion from the fast lane to the slow, they universally show concern for my well being. "Aren't you afraid of angering other motorists?" they query. Well, yes, in the beginning I was nervous about poking along in a speed crazed world. The first week after I became a Priust, while I was shyly, tentatively dealing with the new urge to achieve conservation records instead of speed records, I actually hung a sign on the back window, "Warning, slow moving vehicle. Environmental test in progress. Pass with caution." As I cruised the back roads of my commute, I envisioned drivers flying into uncontrollable road rage at my measured audacity. I quickly found this fear to be wholly ungrounded. As long as I stay as far to the right as possible, no one seems to mind, or even notice. Not one person has honked or given me the single digit since I began my experiment over a year ago. I suspect that the swifts who swarm up behind me and flow quickly by are secretly gratified at being able to pass me without contention. Their satisfied smiles say "Hey, here's a guy who recognizes my superiority and doesn't challenge me for my God given supremacy."

Regardless of what goes on in the minds (?) of other drivers, one of the many unlooked for benefits of slowing down has been the welcome lack of conflict on the road, a big change for a former speedster. Embarrassing as it is to confess, I'm no stranger to road rage. Anyone who's experienced these phenomena can understand how grateful I am to my Prius not to be a part of the anger mismanagement classes that regularly meet on our roadways.

Whether by design or because of fluke of human nature, driving has become a competitive game of speed that no one really wins. Considering the effects on our environment and the risk to life and limb, not to mention peace of mind, lots of people lose in the speed game. Personally, I'm glad to be out of the competition and grateful to my Prius for, if not saving my life, at least making it more enjoyable.

I am not going to try and convince you of the benefits of driving slow (or did I just do that?). You have to experience the slow lane to believe how it changes your perspective on life. What I do want to leave you with is a question. Yes, I realize not everyone will choose their next car because of its low emissions or good gas mileage. Far be it from me to come between the consumer and the need to be sexy. What I want to ask is "Why can't every car have a gauge that encourages drivers to get the most efficient mileage possible?"

Maybe it is too much to ask Americans to drive cars designed for the safety of themselves and others. Maybe it is naïve to expect my fellow consumers to care about the effect their choice of transportation has on the air we breathe. But is it too much to ask for a little green graph in the middle of the dashboard that visually rewards you for driving with your brain instead of your… well, you get my point.

Times Article Viewed: 5143
Published: 26-Oct-2002

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