Why touchscreens are infecting everything

Andy Cross/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Buying a new car? I hope you like touchscreens—modern interiors are full of them. Blame Tesla or Apple or the entire Zoomer generation, but the trend of shoving more and more functionality into a capacitive display isn’t going away.

The death of haptics, muscle memory, and good ol’ tactile involvement shouldn’t be taken lightly, and you probably know that touchscreens have significant drawbacks when used in a vehicle interior. But there are also some real benefits. Let’s look at the positives and negatives and get to the bottom of the subject: Are the days numbered for the humble physical button?

More Screens: But why?

I spoke with leading experts in the field, from user-experience (UX) designers to manufacturer reps and analysts. Almost all of them singled out one factor in touchscreen proliferation: cost.

2021 Audi RS 7 interior infotainment navigation menu
Matt Tierney

Connor Hill, the global design lead at Toyota Connected, Toyota’s development lab for digital mobility, told me: “In terms of pure cost, fewer switches to produce equals savings to the company and customer.” Hill offered a caveat, noting the pessimism of his statement, but his view is definitely realistic.

Another major factor is the growing percentage of consumers who genuinely want a vehicle with screens. Drew Meehan is the senior product manager and a former UX designer at mapping and navigation company TomTom. “People like touchscreens,” he said, “and see them as being modern and relatable, because they echo their consumer devices.” Meaning: phones. “For OEMs, this is a win-win scenario. They can save money while simultaneously providing an experience that’s perceived by consumers as more premium, more modern, and more approachable than traditional in-car systems, like rotary knob controllers.”

Finally, there’s flexibility and the ability to grow. In an era of over-the-air software updates, where a download tonight might give your car fun new features for tomorrow’s commute, allowing the user experience to evolve is key. “Over the air updates impact software,” said Christopher Schreiner, the product director of UX innovation at consulting firm Strategy Analytics. “Having all features software-driven behind a touchscreen provides greater ability to fix bugs or provide improvements.”

Tesla Touchscreens dash front

It’s worth remembering that changes meant to be improvements don’t always work out that way. Around a year ago, Tesla pushed out a major software update, V11, which rearranged many of the major components in its cars’ primary touch interface. Some owners didn’t like the change and took to popular online discussion destinations like Reddit, where complaint threads saw thousands of upvotes.

And yet, so many of us hate them

There is, of course, a healthy list of reasons why touchscreens don’t always satisfy. “Any time a driver takes their eyes away from the road, the risk of an accident climbs,” Robby DeGraff said. DeGraff is an industry analyst at analytics firm AutoPacific. That risk, he notes, applies “regardless [of whether you’re] zooming in on a map or quickly checking to ensure you’ve tapped the right physical button to turn on the window defroster.”

Nor is the problem as simple as merely looking at a screen to locate a virtual button. Many touchscreen interactions require two or more taps to access a feature or function—the driver must open a menu, then navigate a submenu, then drag a control slider to perform some task once accomplished by simply twisting a knob. A knob that could be located through muscle memory and without taking your eyes off the road. “Navigating through a maze of menus and submenus is not only time-consuming but dangerous to do in motion,” DeGraff added.

bmw infotainment touchscreen
Glenn Lindberg/Vi Bilägare

Add a bumpy road to the equation, things get even worse. “Using a touchscreen while driving is nothing like a smartphone experience,” Strategy’s Schreiner said. “There is a reach involved, at a slightly awkward angle, while traveling at 70 mph. Icon sizes need to reflect this, and interior designers need to provide anchors for the elbow and/or wrist, to allow for better use.”

If all that weren’t enough, there’s also weather. Northerners will tell you that capacitive touchscreens can be miserable to use in colder months. Fingers wrapped up in your warmest mittens? Good luck toggling the seat heaters in your Model 3.

Still, it’s getting better

At this point, touchscreens have been in cars for decades. It’s worth remembering that, while early examples were universally awful—slow, distracting, often buggy—the technology has actually improved a great deal in recent years.

2022 EQS 580 4MATIC Sedan (Euro spec) interior Hyperscreen

Much of that improvement comes down to hardware. Toyota’s Hill blamed slow processors and cheap displays for many of the industry’s early woes. UX designers, he noted, have also learned a lot since. A big focus now, he said, is creating responsive designs that work well on all display sizes. There is also a push to simplify things as much as possible: “The best thing we can do as designers,” Hill said, “is to be great editors—cut anything that doesn’t have significant value, and fight for simplicity on behalf of our users.”

TomTom’s Meehan told me about “cognitive load”—the amount of thought required for a person to perform a given action. Design simplicity, he said, is crucial in reducing that load: “What’s important is that drivers know where to find important functions without having to think too much. And without having to search through deep menus, navigation structures, or hidden features.”

What comes next?

What does the future hold? Probably more touchscreens—at least in the short term. “Data from our AutoPacific 2022 Future Attribute Demand Study revealed that 29 percent of consumers nationwide, who intend to buy a new vehicle within the next three years, want a center screen that’s ten inches or larger,” DeGraff said. (For perspective, the current largest Apple iPad is now 10.9 inches; an iPad Mini, the bottom of the range, offers a screen around two inches smaller.)

2023 Subaru Outback refresh touchscreen

Still, DeGraff said, there is reason for optimism—we may see something of a return to physical cockpit controls. “The latest VW Golf GTI and Golf R debuted with strictly touch-capacitive surfaces for just about everything on the vehicle. It was so cumbersome, and quite frankly dangerous. Now, top brass at VW have confirmed that the car will soon [return to] physical buttons.”

TomTom’s Meehan is also optimistic. “There are quite a few design teams and leaders who are now backing off full-touchscreen systems in order to improve the user experience,” he said. “Big screens aren’t likely to go anywhere anytime soon, but over the next few years, I expect to see a slow return of physical controls for basic or repeat functions, like HVAC, lights, and media volume.”

In other words, if you’re a fan of the humble volume knob, don’t give up. There may be a little more tactility in our future after all.

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    There was quite a long debate about this in a past Hagerty Community post. I’ll go on record here as believing that touchscreens are dangerous diversions, but I realize that people who like them will argue that. But in reading this article, it’s mentioned that many like touchscreens in vehicles because they remind them of their phones. Okay. And I see a lot of phones where actions can be voice activated [“call wife”] instead of needing actual touch commands. So, to counter the arguments that looking at a screen and scrolling through menus is distracting, why aren’t automakers pursuing voice-activated systems [“turn on defroster”]?

    Agree. A truly intelligent voice control system paired with physical buttons for critical systems seems like the right future. The article mentions consumers want large touchscreens, but not why. I doubt it’s because they want all every function activated through it. Having to navigate through multiple screens just to turn on my VW ID.4s steering wheel heater is silliness. Having a large, high mounted screen for navigation is very desirable.

    Here is what we are faced with. People want more and more features but this adds more and more buttons and switches. Talk about distractions my old Pontiac SSEI had so many buttons you had to take your eyes off the roads.

    These new systems are getting better. MFGs like GM are in many cases offering the screen but also the most used buttons and knobs so you have a choice.

    Many new features are just impossible to do with knobs. Type in GPS not easy with out a screen.

    I am not a big screen supporter but I get it. And I admit they have gotten better.

    My GMC has two screens and the one that needs the most adjustment is on the drivers center vision. It is controlled with wheel buttons so it is not distracting and it is very user friendly.

    The center dash I just use the radio buttons and for HAVC I use the optional knobs that are climate control. I just adjust the temp.

    The things like lights etc are automatic already.

    Voice control is coming but needs work, mine is better than most but it is just ok. It is mostly for phone and texting.

    DUB 6 is right on the money here. I’ve crossed the center line many times because of the touchscreen. They don’t always perform on the first try and sometimes go wildly beyond what you want. Give me buttons anytime,

    Agree that touch screens are very distracting, yet texting while driving is illegal in most states. Having said this it would be useful to have systems respond to commands like AC or defroster, etc.

    I like the Touchscreens. Not mentioned that the history has been bad and new systems have 1) look like Addons, 2) updates to functionality is limited or never, and 3) repair or replacement is terrible and costly. So good for info, but I want to adjust temperature or heating my seats when the screen dies.

    I’m not sold on voice activated at this point in time. My Ram truck is about 50/50 on getting the correct action, my wife’s Lincoln even less. Maybe it’s my New York accent? Lol

    Hey DUB6, most actually are! The problem is a lot of them have been historically terrible, but they’re finally getting good. You can issue commands like that in a lot of modern cars. In the VW ID.7 you’ll even be able to say “My feet are cold” and the car will warm them up!

    Standards are badly needed. Cognitive memory? Not useful unless touch screens start being standardized. Rent a vehicle or use the wife’s car occasionally? Really? Can anyone imagine if some manufacturers decided to exchange the location of the brake pedal and the accelerator? Those are standards. Look at the garbled use of functions on turn signal levers or the extra levers with functions that are different on each model. Manufacturers are developing without standards. The closest solution of automobile screen functionality in my opinion is the joy stick that allows you to glance at the screen while selecting (less time not looking at the road.) Fortunately Lexus is trying that out, unfortunately it could be a great deal better. Voice is definitely a solution if there are standard commands or a wizard that understands what is asked instead of asking more questions or rejecting with “I don’t understand”. I wonder how many accidents touchscreens are a part of.

    Absolutely hate them. I don’t want to have to take my eyes off the road to adjust anything. Plus, what happens when the car gets some age on it and the stuff starts breaking and, too bad>>software not supported, parts unavailable.

    I agree with you Joe. I always buy used and have increasing concerns with catastrophic faulure of control systems.
    I recently read an article on Hagerty about a European time test to adjust 5 controls while driving at 70 mph. (dim dash lights, lower volume etc., items that were prviously manual controlled)
    It should be a manditory comparison on vehicle specs. This would help to simplify controls if someone’s was the worst to operate and everyone knew.

    Manufacturers rely on this so you can take it to the stealership until it is no longer compatible then trade for another $100k vehicle that is compatible…..and start that financing all over again. Built to be obsolete.

    Absolutely. How useful is a first generation iPhone? It’s totally unusable and obsolete. So will all the electronics in current cars, and this will hasten their retirement. Don’t count on any modern cars ever being collectible, except as static displays

    I agree. I hate them. My second car was a 1950 Olds coupe. After 62 years I can still remember where most of the controls were. Without taking my eyes off the road, lights, windshield wipers, heater controls, radio, shifter, all could be controlled by touch. My latest cars have had touch screens, and though the navigation systems are a godsend with voice commands, my cell phone works just as well for that. I guess I am just and old fogey!

    “Infected” is the best way to describe this blight on driving safely. These are ENTERTAINMENT systems. Americans are already entertaining themselves to death as it is. The marketing gurus have won. Any rational engineer/designer knows this is foolish. I can hear you loud and clear- “OK Boomer, thanks for your opinion” And that is OK. I will happily drive my 1995 Corvette with its 1995 technology until one or both of us are no longer able to function.

    Toggle switches!!! We went from snowplow trucks (highway trucks, not the ones you plow driveways) from toggle to a “joy”stick and touch screen – yep – try taking your eyes off the road while plowing to look at the stupid touchscreen. I miss the toggle switches where you didn’t have to take your eyes off the road to adjust plow, etc etc. BTW – whatever happened to “heads up displays”? Any military pilots/aviators want to weigh in here? Do you use heads up displays or an awkwardly located screen?

    You know those people in the crosswalk, staring intently into their phones an oblivious to the people and traffic around them ? Same thing happens in their cars.

    I hope that the computers in Cars are better now than back in the 80’s
    I was in the computer business and after the 386 was introduced I took
    a year to sell Engine Analyzation equipment to Car Dealers. I was amazed and disappointed
    to find that the analyzation equipment was extremely slow because they were still
    using 8088 processors that had disappeared 5 years before. These machines were
    being sold for 30,000 when the processors which used a Main board that cost about $50 dollars
    After one year I went back to the computer industry but never forgot the cheep poor
    quality of the over priced equipment that was being sold to the Auto Dealers in the
    late 80’s

    I have to agree with DUB6. What I do not understand is why using a touchscreen is, I guess, considered less distractive than using a phone? They both can be dangerous. I witnessed an accident where a car veered out of their lane, side swiping another car, because the person was trying to use their touch screen. My everyday car has two touch screens, plus the gauge cluster, and it is very distracting at times. In addition, I think the voice operated items still have a long way to go. I guess I am old school, as I still like the feel of a switch or knob.

    Give me old-fashioned knobs and/or rotating switches that I can actuate with muscle memory. I have taught advanced and winter driving skills for 40+ years and I can tell you that the fractions of seconds spent poking a touch screen are a real distraction. Just think about our obsession with smart phones! Pedestrians scrolling and strolling are a hazard to themselves and drivers.

    Buttons in vehicles definitely gets a vote from me! Touch screens have their place in certain areas of the vehicle, however, tactility is something that is greatly undervalued when it some to ease of use and safety. More testing should have been done comparing these two before transitioning entirely to a touchscreen environment within the vehicle. Long live the Button!

    I worked at Buick in the late 80’ties when the Reatta was released. One of the first cars with a large touch screen for HVAC etc. One of the marketing and planning guys, who was a successful Formula 5000 driver, rear ended someone due the the distraction of looking at the screen too long. So this problem started from day one.
    The other issue is how dirty the screen gets. Ever look at the greasy set of finger prints? Germ city.

    Touch screens: just as dangerous as texting. TV’s not allowed in front seat, great reasons why. So, with all of today’s technology why not screenless voice control? Voice technology has certainly come far enough, and voice recognition, with multiple users, could be used to increase vehicle security as in starting, or lock doors. And your GPS? Already talks to you.

    I had to drive a Chevy Volt on a cold rainy night recently. Trying to turn the heat on I had to select between “Comfort”, “Eco”, and “Auto” on the touch screen. The temperature setting was up and down arrow buttons on the dash and fan speed set by membrane buttons nearby. At night in the rain on the highway the screen was showing a movie of leaves going around a green planet but would not say why the heater set at 89 degrees was blowing cold air. Infuriating!

    Touch screens are annoying at their best. Dangerous at the worst. But watching virtually everyone under 35 or so with a phone stuck to their gaze, I suppose its what consumers want. Few people care about driving their car, tactile feel of the road, revving the engine to down shift manual transmission. Now its get in, talk to your car,,,,,,bingo. Done. The notes say 10″ or larger. Great. I doubt there are few people who have any clue how cars work, so an electric motor is perfect for them. I don’t like getting old, but it beats alternatives. I have mixed emotions about not being around in 40 or 50 years to see where it all goes. Progress is unstoppable

    I suppose that attitudes toward touch screens in cars is age-related. And I fall into the category of “grouchy old men who hate them”. Why NHTSA allows these things is a mystery to me; I guess a lot of lobbying on the part of the automakers.

    Another observation: the use of nested menus does allow a lot more functions than could ever be controlled by individual switches. However, a lot of those functions are just silly and I’ll wager are seldom used. They exist only to serve a marketing purpose.

    Aircraft displays show what can be done. Even flying a rental aircraft with unfamiliar displays works ok, even though there is much more information presented and tasks are much more complicated of course than in a car. Even with the flat screens, though, there are always a few buttons dedicated to important tasks, like “nearest airport”. In a car, wouldn’t it be grand to at least have a physical volume control? And what about voice control?

    Adding touch screens to cars is adding planed obsoletion. Have another pet peeve and that is the automatic shifter interface. For instance BMW cars have a handle that you have to toggle a switch and push forward to go backward! It so user intuitive that the info display has to show you how to select reverse. Total crap IMHO the user experience for a car enthusiast needs to be tactile from the shifter, brakes, steering and feedback from switches and gauges. The gauges can be digital I’m okay with that but everything else is a distraction and takes away from the joy of driving. Until then I will continue to enjoy hydraulic steering which a honest shift lever not some un-joy stick

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