Category Archives: Automobiles

Honda Sees It My Way

Doing things my way is the right thing to do. The world would be so much simpler for everyone if it went that same way, but Honda has finally seen the error of its ways and has changed in response to my complaining (and others as well, I imagine). What was the problem? It boils down to a fundamentally simple thing. They didm’t take the time to understand their user base at all. They invented this wonderful system to make life easier for people without actually considering the actual people. In the user experience and interface design world, this is what we harp about constantly – KNOW YOUR USERS. And it’s a better way to design computer interfaces and a better way to design everything, including customer service initiatives.

Honda developed this wonderful simple maintenance minder system whereby the car gives you a telltale message when the car is scheduled for repairs. Now you don’t need to think about what service needs to be performed when you hit 60,00o or 90,000 miles. The car will tell you. Wonderful idea, except for one thing,, they neglected to take people into account.

As I know all too well from my work designing user interfaces, people don’t necessarily react like you want to things the way you want. Honda’s system was predicated on people, all people, ignoring the maintenance of their cars until the car itself told them to do something. Every so often, the car dashboard would put up a wrench and a letter designator. The wench meant you needed service and the letter told you which one. “A” was go change the oil and get a basic $99 inspection of stuff. “B” was do that plus balance and align the tires and check the hepa filter; “C” added check the transmission and inspect the drive belts. And so on down the list. You never had to worry about what to do at which miles ever again. Except you did because the system failed its users.

And why didn’t it work? People like me seem to think that cars are expensive (probably because they cost tens of thousands of dollars) and should be maintained to a higher than minimal standard. They’ve improved the efficiency of their engines to get nearly 40 miles a gallon and they’ve improved the reliability of modern cars to the point that the need for repairs is getting less and less. Cars are more reliable than they were when I got behind the wheel of that ’65 289 Mustang for the first time. Back then you had to do regular maintenance or you’d ruin the engine.

I’m not waiting to change my oil every 10,000 miles. My experience says that if I change my oil more frequently than required (I.e., take better care of my car than they recommend) it will last much, much longer. When you add my care to the higher levels of quality found in cars, it usually means I’ll grow tired of a car long before it wears out. When I had cars that recommended a change every 5,000 miles, I did mine at 3,500. So when I got the Fit even though it said I could go 10,000 miles between changes, I changed the oil every 7,500 miles like clockwork. And that’s what I’ve continued to do every 7,500 miles.

Unfortunately, it’s a pretty simple maintenance minder system and it’s in general keyed to two cyclical patterns – the oil changes at 10,000 mile intervals and and aligning and balancing the tires at a 15,000 mile intervals. When they change my oil, they reset that little idiot light mechanism so it doesn’t come on soon after I change the oil. Unfortunately, that’s also the triggering mechanism for telling people like me about the other maintenance things. You’d think that if they think I need to have the belts checked at 60,000 and 90,000 miles they would just create an indicator that tells me that (or put the information in the manual where it used to be) but they didn’t.

If I just ignored preventative maintenance I would have gotten the message when they wanted me to have it.

If they understood their users a little better they wouldn’t have had to create a paper chart of when my car needs what. It wouldn’t have been at all difficult to create an indicator that came on for oil changes at regular intervals and other maintenance issues, it’s just a matter of timing. Why they would tie it to the same reset mechanism is poor engineering and poor customer service. I now know my car will need around $1,800 in repairs over the next 40,000 miles, though, now that they created that little paper chart for me today. If they hadn’t created it, I’d still be in the dark. There’s a hepa filter in the heating and air conditioning system that should have been changed five times before this – it’s still untouched wherever it is.

Survey Says

According to a recent Consumer Reports survey, three-quarters of people would consider an alternative fuel vehicle for their next car. They seem to be tired of paying lots for gas.

The survey found that 37 percent said their leading consideration when shopping for their next car will be fuel economy. A distant second was quality (17 percent) followed by safety (16 percent), value (14 percent) and performance (6 percent).

Car owners were open to different ways of saving at the pump, from downsizing to looking at hybrids, electric cars, or models with diesel engines. In all, nearly three quarters (73 percent) of participants said they would consider some type of alternatively fueled vehicle, with flex-fuel (which can run on E85 ethanol) and hybrid models leading the way. Younger buyers were more likely to consider an alternatively-fuel or purely electric vehicle than drivers over the age of 55.

90 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statements “Auto manufacturers should offer a greater variety of cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles in the near future.” Almost 80 percent felt the same about the statements “Fuel economy standards should require auto manufacturers to increase the overall fleet average to at least 55 miles per gallon,” (79%) and “I am willing to pay extra for a more fuel efficient vehicle if I can recover the additional cost through lower fuel costs” (81%).

For more CR info on fuel efficiency, including ratings, tips and recommendations, go here.

Prius Plug-In is the #3 Fastest Selling Car

Car model sales are rated in days. That is, how many days the average vehicle model will sit on a dealer’s lot before it’s gone, gone, gone. The average number of days for a 2012 or 2013 car is 45 days, so the average car gets unloaded off the hauler and then sits for a month and a half before it’s sold. Manufacturers offer all sorts of incentives to dealers based on these numbers, from the amount of interest the dealers can pay, to a kind of automotive kickback.

Cars that turn quickly these days are frequently luxury SUVs, which says something all by itself. The number of people who can plop down $60,000 or more for a high end SUV must be bigger than I’d think.

According to the site, the winners for April are BMW’s X3 and X5 SUVs, selling in 4 days. The Infiniti JX and the Acura RDX sell in six and seven days, respectively. The Toyota Prius Plug-in version sells in an average of five days  and the new Prius C compact hybrid, which is rated at 53 mpg is also at seven days. The Porsche Boxster was the big loser at 250 days. (Not all hybrids are at the top of the list, either. The Infiniti M 35H, a luxury hybrid sedan, was at 170 days, well below average.


This morning I saw a table of data online on tornadoes in Middle Tennessee, with data from NOAA, that included the number of deaths and injuries, as well as the strength. I went to NOAA and found the raw data just to look at the numbers themselves. I put the data into Excel and just looked at the number of tornadoes each year. Many of the years showed several occurring on the same day, so that’s how I considered them, as several, rather than one that might have hopped and skipped around. I doubt there’s any way to determine that kind of thing anyway, so this is just the raw data.

Things have changed over the years.

Honda Bad Service Experience

As you know, the Maintenance Minder indicator in your 2009 Honda Fit is displayed when it’s time to bring your vehicle in for scheduled maintenance.

Please call us at … to schedule a service appointment. If you have already scheduled an appointment or
had this service performed, thank you.

I get this email from the Honda system, probably based on data the dealer puts in when my oil is changed. And it represents crappy service to me as a user.

This isn’t my first Honda, it’s my third. I’ve posted before about how this email could be improved, but there is more to it this time.

Honda now has a system to remind you when to do things. A wrench icon, accompanied by a letter (a thru d) gets displayed to tell me what needs to be done. In the pre-technology era, you had a list of things that needed to be done at X thousand miles. At 100,000 miles you do these things. Every 10,000 miles you change the oil.

Honda has eliminated this maintenance schedule. It’s now got the maintenance minder to tell me everything I need to know. Except it doesn’t. The standard interval for an oil change is 10,000 miles (I think). I have always changed my oil more often than that, so I’ve never actually seen that maintenance minder icon.

That also means if I needed to have the valves adjusted or it was time to check the brake discs, I would never know about it. I have to depend on the dealer to tell me these things. Which brings me to the point of this post.

I can’t trust them any more. They have actively done something that seems to stick us with unnecessary charges. Because the quickie oil change places seldom have 5W20, the recommended weight, we usually go to the dealer. Since I drive more than my wife, I’m more aware of how often I need to change my oil than I do hers, but I check hers often.

Earlier this week, she noted that her odometer mileage (170K) was past the mileage on her window sticker (168K), so she took the car to the dealer for service. She would have preferred somewhere more convenient, but as I said, they don’t have the right weight oil. After the service, she headed off for the rest of her day. So what’s the issue, you ask?

She happened to look at the window sticker they replaced on her windshield. It had her current 170K mileage on it. The prior one had the current mileage of the car the last time it had been changed as well, 168K. For my entire life, those oil change stickers have reflected the next time you need to change the oil. That makes sense. It’s a reminder and it’s purpose is to remind you to change the oil after a manufacturer-specified mileage period. it makes a better reminder if it tells you when the next change should be.

She took her car in for service because she thought she was 2,000 miles past due. Instead, because the dealer changed their practice to put current mileage on the sticker instead of due date/mileage, she was pushed into an unnecessary expense to the benefit of the dealer.

They should have said, you’ve only been 2,000 miles, are you sure? They didn’t. They took advantage of a woman. Because they changed a standard industry process to jigger how their customers expect things to work. And they seem to have done it to skim money from their customers. That’s beyond bad service if that’s the intent.

In general, Hondas are excellent cars. I’ve had some issues with the base Fit quality decisions, but it is still is a Honda. I may buy another Honda in the future, but it will take a while before the sour taste of this dealer experience is gone.

For Want of a Nail

You’ve heard that old proverb. It starts off a long chain of connected things that happen because of a missing nail.

The crux of it is that little things matter, sometimes even more than the big things. I’ve been reading Steve Jobs’ bio, and it really reinforces this concept. The tiniest of details, carried through an entire product, make the difference in how that product is viewed. Apple carries it to the entire experience, even how the packaging itself looks and works, how the stores look and operate, it’s all planned out In detail. That painful attention to detail in every aspect drives Apple product design and it’s led them inescapably to where they are now.

For years, other companies and industries have tried to do something similar. The auto industry is full of companies that seem to put forth that added effort. And also full of companies that did that and failed to keep it up. VW was like that once. The original Beetle was lots of things, but it was also totally reliable. The new Beetle wasn’t. By the time it was released, VW made cars that weren’t as qualitatively superior any more. They were still decent cars, but they were plagued with issues.

I think Honda is on the same path now. Our first and second Hondas were good cars, both Civics. But time has moved on and even Consumer Reports has failed to recommend the new Civics any more. My Fit is the same way. Honda has cut corners here and there and the result is that the level of quality, the experience of ownership, has lessened significantly. Mechanically, it’s probably as excellent a car as any I’ve owned. The engine and transmission will probably last over a quarter of a million miles. Easily. How they arranged the back seats so they provide huge amounts of storage room and flexibility are good design features. But I won’t buy another one. They’re cheaply done now. The difference shows up in the small details and it is they. Hat reinforce cheapness and inferior quality that takes the shine from the H on the hood.

I rest my left arm on the door next to the glass. In the two prior Hondas we owned, that area was plastic or vinyl and the door panels below that were vinyl or cloth. But that area where higher wear should be expected was a material designed to handle the wear. In the Fit, they’re cloth right up to the window. After 60,000 miles on my car, it’s showing wear there. The fabric’s become worn down and it’s shiny. It’s poor design and poor quality and not representative of the Honda of prior years.

I’ve owned a lot of cars in my lifetime and, since I tend to keep my cars a long time, I’ve seen lots of things wear out. Take floor mats for example. I recall one of my old cars where I wore out the floor mats and had to replace them where my heels dug in. The original mats that came with it were thin rubber ones and I bought thicker replacement mats once the rubber ones wore out. But it was after about 150,000 miles or so. The floor mats in the Fit – thick carpeted ones -have worn out in 60,000 miles – almost all the way through. If I replace them, Honda only sells a full set that includes both front and back.

None of these are big things but they create a perception in the owner (me) of inferiority. Perceptions are not reality, of course. The perception of poor quality does not mean my car will deteriorate quickly. The reality is that car quality over the decades has increased significantly and my car will be comparable. But it never will be as good as it might have been. My perception is that it’s not worth as much as it should be (and worth less on resale because of the diminished quality). My expectations were higher based on my previous Honda experience and that expectation and my perception of it drive my experience. Reality does not.

Saab Has Filed for Bankruptcy

After six decades of building cars capable of taking on the coldest winters, Saab has filed for bankruptcy. Known originally for their quirky two-cycle engines that sounded as much like popcorn poppers as they did cars, Saab looks like it may be about to bite the dust. After years of ownership and poor management by GM, Saab hasn’t been able to find a backer to help them stay afloat.


Sunday was pretty outside. Despite the forecast for rain, it never happened and it was a nice day for a drive. It was the same thing in Japan too, a gorgeous day for a drive. So eleven car enthusiasts in Japan decided to go for a drive to Hiroshima. They got in their super cars ( eight Ferraris, a Lamborghini and two Mercedes) and headed off. Mind you, this is well over a million bucks worth of high end automotive luxury.

As you might expect, there was an accident. One of the Ferrari owners decided to pass the other cars, skidded into the median railing, turned sideways and then whammo, they all were damaged in the resulting pileup trying to avoid hitting the skidding car. A total of 14 cars ended up being involved in the accident. It may be the most expensive pileup ever.

There Are Never Enough Bookstores

Nashville’s getting an independent bookstore again. No, it’s not near me, but still. Here’s the email that the owner sent out as a public service announcement.


3900 Hillsboro Pike, Nashville, TN 37215 · Get Directions


1 615.953.2243



Open until 8:00 pm


Mon – Sat: 10:00 am - 8:00 pm
Sun: 12:00 pm - 5:00 pm

Parnassus Books Grand Opening on Saturday, November 19th!

10:30 am: Puppet Show by Nashville Public Library’s Puppet Truck

1-3:00 pm: Meet-and-greet with local children’s and young adult authors

5-8:00 pm: Grand Opening drop-in reception, featuring local adult authors

A Note from Ann Patchett:

Once again, Nashville has its own independent bookstore, friends, and it feels good. Really, it feels like we have wrenched the hands of time backwards, back to the days of Mills and Zibarts.

I know I’m raising some high expectations for those of you who are old enough to know the stores I’m talking about, but this is what I mean: Parnassus is a small store with a carefully selected inventory of books that you are actually going to want to read.

Someone said to me recently that they went into the three story Barnes & Noble in Union Square in New York and couldn’t find a single thing they wanted to buy; then they went into the 500-square-foot Crawford and Doyle Booksellers on the Upper East Side and were driven mad with desire for nearly every book they saw. How is that possible?

For the same reason that a 75 page menu makes you feel bewildered and not the least bit hungry. Limited choices can be helpful when faced with the Library of Congress.

And here’s another thing we have going for us that our great predecessors knew something about: a friendly, intelligent staff comprised of people who read the books they sell. (Roger Bishop, anyone? Stephanie Freudenthal?)

I know, it doesn’t make any sense to me either. How can we employ such smart, well-read, and truly pleasant people when everybody knows there’s no money to be made in book selling? It turns out that there are some people who love books so much they just want to be around them. People actually offered to work in the store for free (which, sadly, didn’t turn out to be entirely legal.)

The debate isn’t just between e-readers and paper books. It’s also about having the chance to interact with humans while making your purchase. Outstanding humans at that. Please, come in and meet them.

You know those motivational speakers who tell you that the people who become hugely successful in life are the people who do what they love? The thing that doesn’t even feel like work? Well, those motivational speakers probably weren’t talking about opening a bookstore, but still, were doing this because we love it.

If Parnassus works out, I really want to open a tiny drugstore that has a soda fountain that makes great ice cream sundaes, because that’s the other thing I’ve been missing.

In closing, I am thinking of my cousin, Ann Wilson. Every time I left her house, she would say, You best stay with us.

Really. Stay with us.

Thanks so much,