- Photo by Ksenia Kartasheva

Bring Back Buttons

On why modern car infotainment systems are not as great as you think they are.

You know what really grinds my gears? Car infotainment systems. Of course, every modern car is equipped with one and it helps you listen to your tunes or navigate to your destination. It may even provide you with useful tidbits of information such as your average fuel consumption, range, and outside temperature. And if your car’s infotainment is particularly fancy, it may even warn you when one of your tyres is about to go flat.

It was all well and good until one day, someone decided to incorporate the climate control into the infotainment system as well. “Let’s do away with these clunky, old knobs and buttons”, they thought, “It’s the 21st century and what motorists really need is a gigantic touch screen.” And that is exactly what we got. Within a few years, everything from the radio to the ambient lighting controls was incorporated into one central screen. Things went downhill from there.

“Let’s do away with these clunky, old knobs and buttons”, they thought...

Central touchscreen systems may well be all the rage these days, with Tesla and Mercedes being the industry leaders and other companies playing catch-up. Getting rid of old-fashioned knobs and buttons gave cars a very clean and futuristic interior. Car makers even stated replacing analogue gauge clusters with digital ones for that extra pizzazz. However, this shift to screens all around the cabin introduced an elephant in the room which surprisingly few people are willing to talk about.

Tactility. It is the responsiveness to touch. When you press a button to turn on the air con, or twist a knob to adjust the volume, physical feedback from the button or knob lets you know that your desired action has been performed. In addition to this, muscle memory allows you to perform the action time and again without having to divert your eyes. Think about this: how many times do you need look at the clutch pedal when changing gears? Unless you’re a total newbie, you don’t need to because the signals coming to your brain through your leg are enough to let you know the position of the pedal.

Ford Mustang Mach-E's Infotainment System. -Credits: evanshalshaw.com

Ford Mustang Mach-E's Infotainment System. -Credits: evanshalshaw.com

The problem with touch screens is that the feedback they offer is very limited. Because they are incredibly smooth and hard to the touch, touching them results in very little tactile feedback. Screens are also flat, unlike buttons, which can be distinguished by the touch alone. This means that to operate touchscreens, the driver is forced to take his eyes off the road a lot more often than before. Simple tasks like switching on the air con or tuning the radio on require a lot more faffing about with the screens.

Even though consumers are attracted by fancy infotainment systems, these complex systems are certainly not good for vehicle safety because they distract the drivers and passengers. Speaking of distraction, don’t even get me started on floating displays. “Let’s stick a massive iPad on the dash!” Honestly, I’d rather have a 2DIN Pioneer system. Oh wait, that is what I’ve got. My car had an old JVC cassette player which needed up-gradation. The market was inundated with massive android touch panel systems which were frankly disgusting to use. So, after a lot of searching, I found a used Pioneer stereo. Simple and sweet.

The Mini Cooper's infotainment system has a good mix of screen, buttons, & knobs.

The Mini Cooper's infotainment system has a good mix of screen, buttons, & knobs.

Surveys are now showing that many drivers use very little of the technology their cars are equipped with. Perhaps car makers need to rethink the way they are incorporating technology in their cars. Technology should not overpower the basic driving experience. Massive touchscreens may look minimalist in design, but in terms of functionality they are unnecessarily difficult.

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Comments (4)

  • I once saw a vid on insta where to change the air-con vents' position you have to go through 2 menus and press 4 "buttons" just so you get to slide you finger across the screen, much like you would do with a regular god-damned vent. TLDR: Yes we need to go back.

      19 days ago
    • Adjusting the air con vents through the screen is just ridiculous! I hope car makers realise this soon.

        18 days ago
    • Unfortunately, modern regulations have effectively prohibited any creativity in regards to design and performance, so in order to make an attractive and differentiate product, car manufacturers have turned to implementing in as many...

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        18 days ago
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