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.

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: Sony and Honda are Afeela-ing good, Stellantis to build an air taxi, GM back on top in sales race


    So it’s illegal to text and drive,but it’s ok to navigate several touch screens while driving to turn the heat up….

    Two words: redundant controls. My 2017 Lexus RX350 has a good combination of both screen controls and redundant tactile controls. Once you spend an hour in the garage going through everything, it’s easy to figure out which items you will use the most, and focus attention on them. It also has voice command for a lot of other basic functions. The joystick thing on the console isn’t the best, but you can adjust the sensitivity to make it work well enough. I will never go “full screen control” however. Too many things to go wrong, and fixes will be expensive. If no redundancy, me no purchase-y.

    How ironic that Hagerty Drivers Club issue 77 arrived today. Please see Page 38 for the ultimate touchscreen.

    Hello Mates,
    Its crystal clear touch screens only take the drivers attention away from driving. The rest of us suffer those poor skills as these surfers navigate the screen; they forget the basic respect of using the blinker, staying right, scanning mirrors often, and holding their line. Car manufacturers which provide these distractions should pay a greater fee to the insurance industry and drivers who select these equipped cars should have to pay a far greater registration fee and insurance premium. Drive your car, focus, don’t kill other humans (cyclist, pedestrians, and other motor vehicle operators) because you are distracted. Driving ignorance is not an excuse.
    DRIVE! No screen surfing. As a multiple hit victim on my bicycle and an avid track driver this is not progress.

    HAHAHAHA! The touch screen is totally a cost savings that manufacture’s can sell as “high end” !

    But the real kicker for me is the lack of levers to go from 2WD to 4WD! The satisfying feeling of pulling your jeep or truck into 4WD! I keep buying Wranglers because they still have the lever! The Wrangler still has heat and air , radio and other buttons and knobs to turn. I recall when the Ford Raptor 1st came out , I asked a guy at a traffic light what he thought of his hotrod truck. Its awesome he replied! “except there’s just a little knob to go into 4×4”. The sad look on his face lives on in my memory.

    Cost savings and the fact that the designers are Gen Z types who live in their devices and never played outdoors as kids..

    I would like to add my name to the list of people who hate touch screens on vehicles. My 2016 Mazda has one that started acting up after warranty expired. It was going to cost over 2000 dollars to replace! It wouldn’t stop blinking on and off. I went on you tube and learned how to disable the touch screen. It can still be operated using controls on the middle console. I never use it.

    In my opinion, the only good reason for a screen is navigation.
    Unfortunately, government mandates for back-up cameras makes it mandatory for all cars to have a screen. As long as there is a costly screen, manufacturers will of course try to put all the functionality in the screen.
    I would love it if they included ODB test functionality in the in-vehicle screen. Of course I don’t expect that to ever happen.
    Our newest car (2011 Chrysler 200) does not have any screens, which is great for me.

    I hate touch screens in cars and most video displays with the exception of GPS. Why Mayor Pete does not have the Department of Transportation taking a long hard look at this issue is beyond me.

    Isn’t everyone getting tired of phone, computer, media, and tech companies and etc dictating the features and terms of their products to folks who are going to lay down significant bucks? From a safety perspective, touch screens in automobiles are about as marginal as it gets. The aviation industry went to digital touchscreens and displays and the result was pilots spending more time playing with the buttons than looking out the window and the airlines had to develop protocols for digital management. The same inattention permeates folks driving in autos, only the safety margin is a hell of a lot less.

    The Feds have checked out, sold out, or just given in or these systems would not allowed. The same issue with Mobile phones, a terrible and unsafe distraction while driving. Of course, the manufacturers come up with lane/following/emer braking panaceas that really are no substitute for paying attention while driving a two-ton plus car at high speeds with other autos all around you. This is not going to change unless folks stop buying this BS or the Feds step up. I am not saying all of the technology is bad, the digital and GPS systems have made aviation much safer from the airlines to the private pilot but they have to be managed.
    However, I am not optimistic, MONEY is king at this moment and it buys a lot of politicians and bureaucrats.

    Never mind that turning a knob is simple and can be done with at most no more than a glance. I am frankly surprised that the NTSB has not taken action to minimize the intrusion of touch screens on driver attention to, uh, driving! It is now illegal in many states to use a phone while driving unless it can be done hands-free. Yet there are no restraints on how much you look off the road to fiddle with things more logically done with a knob or button.

    After 5+ years of owning a Honda FIT I still am pleased with the car BUT I hate the computer that came with it! I did not / do not want the information that it is capable of giving me. Yes I am old fashioned and if it was not for my wife’s physical limitations I would have bought one with a manual transmission instead of the automatic. For fun I’ll take my Bugeye wit a hot 1275cc and a 5 speed on local roads in Western Carolina mountains.

    I drive a 2017 Macan S with mostly tactile buttons and a small touch screen. The new Macans are nearly 100% touch screen. It looks and feels awful. I’m so disappointed in Porsche allowing this to happen. Our letters to Porsche will be sent very soon.
    William LaMontagne

    I might add wish more vehicles had Heads Up Display. That would be more a benefit than anything.

    My radio, GPS, and a number of other things from cruise, speed, the speed limit and more are displayed in front of me. I seldom look at a dash. This is a GMC so if they can do it most others can do it.

    It’s a reason for me to buy “last years car” if the old one isn’t touchscreen everything.

    For instance I would buy an S550 Mustang over the S650 or a 2021 Lexus NX over a 2022 NX because of the touchscreens. It’s a big nope and likely to turn me in the future to a used car owner as I refuse to do this. They all suck, including Tesla. I may like my smartphone but I do not want to have that take over all the buttons and switches in my car. It’s just less safe.

    Touch screens=entertainment. If you need entertainment in car it’s probably because that car or driving it it’s boring or not entertaining enough. I find more entertaining driving my touchscreen-free 356 and looking through its windscreen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *