Thursday, January 15, 2009

Green, User-Friendly, and High-Tech

Solar panels and wind generators are two examples of green technology, but cleaning products and disposable diapers can also be called green products if they’re made to be environmentally friendly. Perhaps any device that reduces pollution, or cuts fossil fuel consumption can be considered a green product. A cell-phone, for example, has potential but I wouldn’t add it to my list.

I despise modern cell-phones. They tend to offer so many features that basic functions, like making a call, can be difficult. The poor design of cell-phones extends beyond a crazy menu system; the physical layout is absurd. I usually activate the “Speakerphone” function when I pick up my wife’s cell-phone because the button for that function is on the side of the phone. How, I wonder, am I supposed to pick it up? Developers could, if they wanted to, offer advanced features without making the device unnecessarily difficult to operate. Basic functions should be easily accomplished with a minimum of keystrokes, and advanced features could be accessed via a hierarchical menu system. The number of switches could be minimized. A cell-phone might save the user time and money, but I’m disappointed with most I’ve seen because they’re not user-friendly. Can a high-tech device be “Green” and “User-Friendly” at the same time?

My idea of a great high-tech device is one that makes life easier, and saves the user time or money. A really great high-tech device does those things, but also works right out of the box without a long learning curve. I bought such a device recently. It’s called a “Personal Travel Assistant”, or PTA. They’re also known by their brand names. Garmin, Magellon, and Tom Tom are a few you might recognize.

I must confess that I felt guilty for buying it at first. It seemed that I was wasting money on something that wouldn’t be of any real value to me. But to my surprise the device actually started saving me money on the second day. I’ll explain in a moment, but first let me tell you how it works. There are two basic modes of operation. Normally, the device shows your direction of travel and nearby roads. You’ll see the names of upcoming intersections and side streets before you get to them. However, if you pre-program a destination address the device will plot a route for you. It tells you in a pleasant voice when a turn is coming up. As a test of my new device I programmed in the address of a destination I occasionally travel to. As I drove toward the destination, I was surprised when I was given a shorter route than the one I usually follow. Eureka! I saved gas and time. It looks as though I’ll save even more time and burn less gas as I use other features. The device can help me locate restaurants and gas stations anywhere I happen to be, and I’ll avoid getting lost as I travel to unfamiliar destinations. I’ll no longer need to print out MapQuest directions, or to pull over and read a map.

I’ve changed jobs recently, and my new employer asked if I would be willing to spend 4 to 6 weeks working in Tampa Florida. Knowing that I would be leaving sub-freezing weather for a more favorable climate, accepting the assignment was an easy choice. I’ve never been to the Tampa area, and my new PTA has been extremely helpful.

Since my ultimate goal is to cut fossil fuel consumption, my “Personal Travel Assistant” is as important as my solar panels and my bio-fueled stove. Reducing my carbon footprint is something I want to do, primarily for the benefit of my grandchildren, and I’ll take advantage of every opportunity to do so. If I can have a little fun while doing it, that’s OK too.