Home » This 20 Year Old Toyota Sienna HVAC Design Is Garbage And I’m Not Having It

This 20 Year Old Toyota Sienna HVAC Design Is Garbage And I’m Not Having It

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I’m not going to hold my breath that Toyota will suddenly issue a recall of all the nearly 20-year-old Sienna minivans to solve the HVAC Is Garbage problem. But in a hypothetical ideal world, a world of peace and tranquility, where mud is Nutella and friendly birds land on your shoulder and whisper hot stock tips to you, the recall would be underway right now.

Yes, for real. Because this human-machine interface misstep is so annoying, so preventable, I simply must talk about it in hopes of preventing such miseries from ever happening again.

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This design failure is on the HVAC controls of the $500 2006 Toyota Sienna that David gave me after my heart exploded, because dropping off high-mileage cars in your driveway is how David shows he cares. Here’s the specific problem:

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Can you see the issue here? I’ll highlight it, just in case:

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Now do you see? What’s going on is that there is a label there, TEMP, just over an adjustment rocker switch. At a glance, it seems like that switch controls the TEMP (you know, for temperature, the same stuff used to cook frozen pizzas) because it appears to be prominently labelled so.

Of course, that’s not the case. The actual temperature control is here, highlighted in red:

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The two-way switch that seems to be labeled TEMP is actually the fan switch, and there’s a little fan icon (I’m pretty sure it’s not a four-leaf clover, which would make that switch a LUCK setting switch, something I don’t think is included in most cars) to let you know that the rocker controls the fan speed.

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See the problem here? At a glance, you look at that screen and you see TEMP and a control switch with two directions on it, so why wouldn’t you assume that was how the temperature is controlled?

The problem is when you go to adjust the temperature higher, you’re actually increasing the fan speed, and you’re rewarded with not warmer air, but, usually, colder, because you’ve increased the fan velocity and now you’re being blown with air that you had determined to be not warm enough as it is.

The actual TEMP control button is just far removed enough from the main focal point of the HVAC system, that vacuum-fluorescent display (VFD), so it’s surprisingly easy to overlook.

I don’t understand how this wasn’t shown to be a problem in focus groups. Everyone I’ve seen try to adjust the temperature in this van has made the same damn mistake, and it is not the fault of those people. It’s bad UX.

It would be easy to fix, too! I think there’s a few ways to fix this, but one that could have been quite cheap and easy is also one that’s interesting, conceptually. They designed what that VFD can display, so if they added labels into the display itself, as opposed to silkscreened on the clear plastic lens, like this: Siennahvac Fix

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…then I think all confusion would be eliminated, completely. I mean, look at that – there’s no doubt what those labels are referring to now that they’re part of the electronic display. The cost difference here would be negligible, if any at all – instead of having to silkscreen text on that lens, they just design the VFD to have three more illuminated shapes, the labels. Easy, cheap.

It’s interesting how differently our brains interpret the labels in the display as very clearly referring to the other, similarly-colored elements in the display, as opposed to the white printed text, which visually has much more in common with how buttons and switches are labeled.

I think that’s the root of the problem here: a grammar was developed, where white, printed-on text refers to controls and that aqua-colored illuminated display text refers to labels of information being displayed. They’re two very different things, and when Toyota tried to label information display elements on the screen with the look and feel of how they label directly-manipulable controls, the whole thing breaks down, because they broke their own rules of visual grammar they established.

This may seem to be a trivial problem with a car long out of production, but I think the lesson here is still valid, and still important. Details matter, especially when it comes to the way we control the features of our car, and visual looks, and visual grammar and rules are a real thing, and can make the difference between controls so good you don’t even realize you’re using them and controls so annoying you want to crowbar the whole damn HVAC unit out and fling it out the window every time you just want to get warmer but end up being blasted with a burst of unwanted cool air.

Details matter. Toyota, you’re welcome to use my fix approach for all second-generation Toyota Siennas (2004-2010) when you issue your recall and fix. You’re welcome.

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Ben
Ben
1 month ago

Little late on this one, but I am surprised to see people disagreeing with you here. It’s obviously bad UI design (but then I guess now we know how it happened, some people just don’t get it).

Also surprised the obvious solution wasn’t proposed: Swap the temp and fan controls. Then the temp control is under the temperature where it belongs and the fan control is no longer ambiguous.

Chartreuse Bison
Chartreuse Bison
1 month ago

I don’t understand how this wasn’t shown to be a problem in focus groups

Ha, Toyota actually bothering to focus group a UI choice, that’s funny.
They basically said “no, it is the customers who are wrong” with the dumbass Lexus joystick for about a decade

Harrnack
Harrnack
1 month ago

I have this gen Sienna. The HVAC control is crap, but for me, the issue is I always reach for the temp control in the center when I’m driving and want to warm up/cool down. All that does is turn off the sync and change the rear temp.

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
1 month ago

No discussion of the random light that says “Sonar”?

Manuel Verissimo
Manuel Verissimo
1 month ago
Reply to  Thomas Metcalf

Give me one ping please.

Mortalcombatant
Mortalcombatant
1 month ago

I think you should return this car to David right away. Include throwing keys in his face while returning it and yelling “you promised me a nice car for my sweet 16 and this is not it” .

CSRoad
CSRoad
1 month ago

No! I saw God Bless America and remember what happened to Chloe.

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
1 month ago

I dunno, man, this may be a you thing. While your redesign with the labels in green closer to the readout is an improvement, this is pretty clear to me. Both driver and passenger side temp controls are there, large, and reinforcing each other visually. It’s obvious where the demo adjustment is. And the fan controls are left and right, rather than up and down, which also confirms that rocker switch with, you know, a fan graphic, is not for setting temperatures.

Hondaimpbmw 12
Hondaimpbmw 12
1 month ago

Some people would complain if

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
1 month ago

Well, it’s in a car named after dirt, so the bar isn’t that high.

Aron9000
Aron9000
1 month ago

You think thats a bad design?? How about my 2014 Lexus ES350. Has every single button to control the heat/ac on the dash. Except the one that turns the a/c compressor on or off.

No to do that you gotta use the mouse thingy and go thru the screen which has duplicate buttons to work the climate control including a virtual button to turn the a/c compressor off.

So it will needlessly run the a/c compressor all winter long unless you go thru the screen to turn it off. It defaults to a/c compressor on when you start the car.

Finally after a year of owning this car I figured out there is a setting buried in the menus where if you turn the physical fresh or recirculating air button to manual instead of auto it will also turn off the a/c compressor. And keep it off when you restart the car. Makes ZERO logical sense why that function is tied to the a/c compressor and why its a seperate option you have to select buried in the settings menu

All they needed was one more physical button marked A/C with a little green light like every other freaking car ever made!!

Kurt Hahn
Kurt Hahn
1 month ago
Reply to  Aron9000

It does make some sense though: if you switch on recirculating air, the system probably uses the a/c compressor to control the humidity level (which rises if there’s no fresh air coming in). By switching on the compressor, the system can avoid to get steamy windows.

MiniDave
MiniDave
1 month ago
Reply to  Aron9000

Most A/C systems won’t run the compressor if it’s less than 40* F out

Pappa P
Pappa P
1 month ago
Reply to  Aron9000

In normal climate control operation, during cold weather the system will often cycle the AC on and off momentarily as it modulates temperature at the set point. It won’t run the compressor all winter long, or your car would literally never get warm.
This is normal, and it’s good for the compressor and AC system.
All you have to do is set your temp, press auto and enjoy.
With manually controlled HVAC, this button makes more sense.

Leighzbohns
Leighzbohns
1 month ago

my 2006 sienna, poverty spec, has dials and no screen. your van is too bougie torch.

Bill Garcia
Bill Garcia
1 month ago
Reply to  Leighzbohns

Poverty spec HVAC controls are where it’s at – I want three dials, namely fan, temp and one controlling the different modes. I’d pay to be able to retrofit the analog controls from the base trim in Wrangler and get rid of the digital nonsense I got.

Last edited 1 month ago by Bill Garcia
Gubbin
Gubbin
1 month ago

So your problem description is roughly:
“I’m looking over a four leaf clover
that I overlooked before
Above it, my temp and, the backseat is next and
Third is the seating that’s onto the right hand

No need explaining
The one remaining is what I was looking for
I’m looking over a four leaf clover
that I overlooked before”

TheWombatQueen
TheWombatQueen
1 month ago
Reply to  Gubbin

COTD or I riot

Mpphoto
Mpphoto
1 month ago

I wonder if making the up chevron red and the down chevron blue would help make it clearer that is the button you are supposed to use to adjust the temperature. But I do like Torch’s solution of putting the TEMP words in the actual LCD display.

Gardenbolt
Gardenbolt
1 month ago

sounds like a job for a piece of masking tape

Bob Boxbody
Bob Boxbody
1 month ago

Any car with a Get Lucky button (or in this case, an available range of Getting Lucky) is okay by me!

Peter Andruskiewicz
Peter Andruskiewicz
1 month ago

Ok, I can see what you’re trying to point out, but I got Toyota’s intent with it when I first saw it. The more egregious error is putting a decimal place in the temperature reading. There’s no way the climate control is accurate to within a degree F, especially considering the temperature variation that naturally exists within the cabin is at least 3-4F and the way you sit, let alone what seat you’re in, will change your perception of the T. There’s a time and a place for that level of precision, and this is not it!

OttosPhotos
OttosPhotos
1 month ago

Hmmm, first glance and all I see are three temperature gages. The arrows obviously refer to the fan speed. Don’t see a problem.

And why are you looking at buttons while driving anyway?

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 month ago

Wut?
the SONAR button is for parking? Ok; that’s definitely enough for today. Time to shut off devices, grab a hunk of dead, pressed tree, and read by the light of a freakin candle. Damn.
-some days I just can’t handle the current state of this civilization-

Torque
Torque
1 month ago

Our 04′ Sienna is an XLE and has the same hvac display/button arrangement and even though we’ve had it 13 years now every time I go to adjust it, it gives me pause bc of the layout of the graphics vs. buttons, which is really silly on my part bc usually all I change is to turn the hvac on requires toggling the fan button to the right
And increasing or decreasing temp.; left up/down temp toggle bc I have all 3 of them synced
Weirdly, since you have ro toggle the fan button to the right to turn the hvac on… you can’t toggle the fan button to the left to turn the hvac off, there’s a separate “off” button which is below to the right of the ‘auto’ (hvac) button for that instead

Last edited 1 month ago by Torque
Cryptoenologist
Cryptoenologist
1 month ago
Reply to  Torque

My 2019 vehicle has a similar thing- there is an Auto button which turns HVAC on, or turning the fan up will also turn the HVAC on however it was previously configured(except for fan speed), and to turn off there is a dedicated OFF button which does not work to turn the it on.

MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
1 month ago

I’m currently vehicle shopping and despise AUTO climate. My wife and I always adjust manually to whatever we need. Gives us something to fuss about while on long drives. Car buying sucks when every design and feature you want was from 15-20 years ago.
We want a boxy wagon (for big dogs), knobs instead of screens and manual transmission if possible. Everything is a rounded hatch that would chop off our dogs heads. Actually, a vintage minivan like that is better then modern stuff.

Cryptoenologist
Cryptoenologist
1 month ago
Reply to  MikeInTheWoods

We had a car from 2014 that had great auto functionality- it even waited to for the coolant to heat up before turning on the blower. Oddly, most newer cars have worse auto modes. However, every one I’ve owned have the option to go almost full manual if you want, although still with temp instead of just hot/cold.

Stryker_T
Stryker_T
1 month ago

the newer ones are just as confusing to work for me whenever I have to drive my parents van for whatever reason.

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
1 month ago

It’s got buttons and that’s good enough for me.

Hoonicus
Hoonicus
1 month ago

Quite the oral exam of a gifted horse.

Hondaimpbmw 12
Hondaimpbmw 12
1 month ago
Reply to  Hoonicus

Some people would complain if they were hung with a new rope. 😉

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
1 month ago
Reply to  Hondaimpbmw 12

Hanged. The use of “hung” is especially dicey in an equine context.

Hondaimpbmw 12
Hondaimpbmw 12
1 month ago

My now 100 year old mother never made it past the 8th grade in her one room country school house. So i always heard it as hung. 🙂

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