Filling a car: user interface commentary thereon

I don’t own a car, so while I’m a bit late in life for this tradition, I’ve nevertheless been driving my father’s car while my parents are overseas. They’re back today, so last night I decided to fill the tank for them before they got back.

I wasn’t coming into this in the best of states. I had a three year old child in the car. It was evening peak hour in Sydney, and although I was yet to realise that events in Moore Park were slowing traffic even more than usual back as far as the Lane Cove tunnel (for reference, Moore Park and the Lane Cove tunnel are 15km apart on entirely different sides of Sydney Harbour), I had already had to turn from Lane Cove Road onto Epping Road, which has to be one of the worst designed intersections of all time, except for all other intersections of major arterial roads in Sydney, which are also awful in peak hour. (For example, it was often considerably faster to get off my bus on the Pacific Highway, walk 1km around onto Epping Road, and catch an entirely new bus further ahead in the queue than it used to be to wait for the bus to turn that same corner.) But Lane Cove and Epping is my especial enemy after most of a decade at Macquarie University, I can’t even go into it now. And finally, I was late to meet my sister, who was sitting on the front step of my house in the dark.

Then I pull up to a pump, which is also (I knew) on the wrong side of the vehicle, run back and forth between the drivers seat and the fuel hatch (on opposite sides of the vehicle) until I find the latch for it, unhook the hose from the bowser, drape it over the top of the car, and get a good look at the fuel cap for the first time. “DIESEL”.

Before everyone reaches for smelling salts, all that happened here is I said “oh for real?”, put the ULP hose away, got back in the car, moved it, hunted around on foot for the diesel pump, found it, moved the car there, filled the car, spilled big splotches of diesel all over my dress (that made for a fun drive home, ugh, sorry your car interior smells of diesel Dad, but I also note it smelled strongly of cattle before that), paid for the fuel, got back in the car, apologised profusely to my 3 year old ā€” who is very well behaved in cars, those of you who’ve heard my story about him in planes will be surprised to hear, and who hadn’t peeped the whole time other than to say “oh no Mama diesel” sympathetically ā€” and drove home in infuriating traffic, about 45 minutes late to hand over the car to my sister.

So far so good right? But my point is this. That label “DIESEL” was in a nice elegant thin font in white letters on the fuel cap. It was big but it didn’t look so terribly important, I can imagine “TOYOTA”, say, being lettered much the same (or “NO SMOKING” which is important in general, but less so to me in particular). I probably only would have needed to have been in about a 10% worse mood to have just missed it entirely and filled the tank with ULP, which I just now confirmed is as expensive a mistake as I thought it was, and this morning my parents would be flying into the country in order to find that I’d wrecked the engine. Good grief.

My point is this: it would be nice if that cap was, say, all in red, and burned to the touch in the close proximity of ULP or something (yeah yeah, not really). In order to avoid a mistake that would cost weeks and ten thousand dollars to rectify, and moreover would be at the expense of my father’s very car reliant job too, there’s elegant white lettering on black? There aren’t even differently sized or shaped interfaces? At least I can take a UI design lesson from it: I will always in future imagine evening peak hour, a toddler, running late, and how to help that person not spend ten thousand dollars on a momentary oversight.

And if you have a diesel vehicle and want to loan it to your frazzled adult daughter (or frazzled adults of your acquaintance in general) I see that there are after market mis-fuelling prevention devices. Good to know someone stepped in. Although at this particular service station, I would have had to pull it off again because it was a high flow bowser. So, you know, not exactly ideal still.

2 thoughts on “Filling a car: user interface commentary thereon

  1. Jan Schmidt

    Almost the very first time my father was filling his brand new Subarus Diesel Forrester, I distracted him with chatter and a 20+ years of habit made him reach for the Unleaded. He was halfway through filling the tank when I called out “Shit! Dad, you’re using Unleaded”. He got as far as “Ha ha, not FUNNY JAN” before his own ‘Oh shit’ moment.

    Luckily, merely putting unleaded in the tank of a diesel car ain’t so bad – as long as don’t start the engine and pump it all through. Still expensive though: We got the car towed up the street and the tank dumped out and refilled.

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