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Has the Printed Owner's Manual Become Obsolete?

Has the Printed Owner's Manual Become Obsolete?

By Jeff Youngs, February 24, 2012
Digital tablets offer countless benefits over traditional booklets

2011 Hyundai Sonata TurboHyundai's recentannouncement that its new flagship Equus luxury sedan, expectedto start at about $55,000 with standard 8-cylinder power, would arriveequipped with a "digital tablet"-instead of a traditional owner'smanual-shouldn't surprise anyone. New cars and trucks on sale today arefitted with some of the most advanced electronics available, yet theseldom-used printed owner's manual seems like a relic in today'selectronic world filled with PDA's, cell phones, in-car navigationsystems, and multimedia interface systems like Audi's MMI,Mercedes-Benz COMAND, and BMW's iDrivecontroller.

Two decades ago, before the proliferation of GPS navigation systems,Bluetooth phone connectivity, and versatile, in-car infotainmentsystems, the owner's manual was simply a hundred-page technicalreference guide that one might check for the proper tire pressure,correct oil viscosity, or guidance on other user-serviceablemaintenance items. Most cars operated nearly identically, with theexception of a few manufacturer-specific details. Owners glanced at themanual on delivery day, and then it was lost within a sea of paperworkthat inevitably filled the glove box.

Today, even the most basic car is seemingly more advanced than NASA'sSpace Shuttle. The owner's manual (or manuals, as is often the case)not only has to cover basic vehicle operation, but is tasked withcovering warranty details, recommended service schedules, and operatinginstructions for the numerous electronic devices that control nearlyevery function of today's cars and trucks. No longer a thin,easy-to-handle paperback-today's printed owner's manuals aremini-encyclopedias that are often stored in thick packets in the trunkas glove boxes have become increasingly smaller over time.

Further confusing things, software on late-model vehicles-like theoperating system on a home computer-is often updated at regular serviceintervals. These updates may make the information in printed owner'smanual dated, or obsolete.

2011 Hyundai Sonata TurboHyundai's approach is notunexpected. New-vehicle buyers are comfortable with state-of-the-artdigital electronic items such as tablet PCs, Netbooks and e-readers. Infact, it's not uncommon for most consumers to carry amultimedia-enabled smartphone with Internet access around with them atall times, so educating new Equus owners on how to use the multimediatablet technology, which may be Apple's new iPad, shouldn't be a bighurdle.

Electronic owner's manuals offer several advantages over their printedcounterparts. First, the digitally-encoded information may easily besearched from a keyword or phrase rather than by searching through anindex. Second, pictures are more detailed and larger (with zoomfeatures) and may in the future be replaced by "how-to" videos thatdemonstrate various basic maintenance operations such checking engineoil levels. Lastly, a wireless-capable electronic owner's manual isnever obsolete-manufacturers will be able to automatically upload thelatest versions to all owners (across the country) at the touch of abutton.

Furthermore, many late-model cars are equipped with wirelesscommunication systems built into their on-board electronics. Althoughprimarily designed for safety alerts or concierge services, it wouldn'tbe difficult for the software to send service or maintenance noticesdirectly to an electronic tablet in real-time so owners couldconveniently schedule service appointments at the touch of a button.Plus, there are also standard built-in benefits of wireless access totraffic reports, weather updates, and vehicle navigation through alarge color flat-screen interface.

The printed owner's manual may be obsolete, but there is no reason tomourn its passing. In addition to saving more trees, the digital tabletis a much more intuitive and user friendly interface that offerscountless benefits to automakers and consumers alike. Hyundai may bethe first to deliver this technology, but they certainly won't be the last.
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