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Know-How

Of course, you already knew how to drive. You probably qualify as an expert automobile user—not necessarily a professional, but fully qualified and trained. For the expert, driving becomes what psychologists call an over-learned skill. You can do it without giving it much conscious attention. Consider this remarkable little experiment the next time you are driving and talking with a passenger. As you are talking, let yourself become aware of the fact that you are also driving. How is this happening? Driving is a very complex information processing task, as a team of Army scientists and engineers learned when they tried to program a computer to drive a van. And even an ordinary casual conversation is far more complex than driving a car. Yet experienced drivers can attend to the thread of the conversation and relegate most of the problems of driving to background processing using stable subroutines.

When you slipped behind the wheel of that unfamiliar rental car, you were aided in adjusting to the new user interface by two things. It probably fit quite closely with the way in which you “naturally” carry on your over-trained dialogue with a car, and it was probably not dramatically different from the one in your own car. The instrument panel and controls of most cars follow a few basic conventions. Gear shifts are either on the steering column or on the floor between driver and passenger, the speedometer is typically dead ahead on the dashboard, the steering wheel is round, and the turn signal, to the left on the steering column except in countries where you drive on the left side of the road, is tilted clockwise for a right turn, counter-clockwise for left, just like the steering wheel. The interface is both consistent with established conventions and internally consistent. Now and then you encounter something odd and have to play around a bit to figure out how to get the headlights on, but even this is likely to take only a few moments.


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