Auto safety test: physical buttons beat modern touchscreens

Shawn Knight

Posts: 14,347   +166
Staff member
Why it matters: Touchscreen displays are slowly but surely replacing physical buttons as the standard method for interfacing with automobiles, but are they easier or safer than their button-based counterparts?

Swedish car magazine Vi Bilägare recently put a dozen vehicles to the test. Of them, 11 featured touchscreens and only one – a 17-year-old Volvo V70 – relied on physical buttons from yesteryear.

The publication measured how long it took a driver to perform a series of basic tasks while traveling at 68 mph on a closed course. Notably, the drivers were given time to get to know each car and their respective infotainment systems before testing started.

Testing consisted of completing four tasks including activating the heated seat, increasing the temperature by two degrees, and starting the defroster as well as turning on the stereo and adjusting the station to a specific channel, resetting the trip computer and lowering the instrument lights to the lowest level then turning off the center display.

The 2005 button-based Volvo V70 performed the best in testing, with it taking the driver just 10 seconds to conduct all of the tests. Traveling at 68 mph, the vehicle covered only 1,004 feet while the driver was making the adjustments.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the MG Marvel R, a compact Chinese SUV. The driver needed 44.6 seconds to complete all of the tasks using its touchscreen and traveled 4,501 feet in the process. The best-performing touchscreen-based vehicle was the Dacia Sandero as its driver needed just 13.5 seconds to run the gamut. Volvo's C40 was a hair behind, finishing with a time of 13.7 seconds.

According to the publication, automakers are increasingly moving to touchscreens as they afford a cleaner interior with minimal components. The bean counters also favor touchscreens because they are less expensive to implement and can be updated over time with additional functionality.

Do you prefer the sleek aesthetic that modern vehicles with touchscreens afford, or are you a purist with a penchant for tried and true buttons?

Image credit: Randy Tarampi, Obi

Permalink to story.

 

p51d007

Posts: 3,315   +2,923
Duh! Gee thanks Captain Obvious!
I HATE touch screens! With buttons, switches & knobs, I don't have to flipping take my
eyes off the road to turn the heat/AC on/off, switch stations on the radio etc.
I prefer the "old school" knobs & buttons. Hell, I don't like the keyless start or automatic
transmissions.
 

psycros

Posts: 4,352   +6,381
Cars should have a flat rectangular area in the center of the dash with a magnet in each corner and a data port somewhere. Then you could just seat a button panel into the recess, and if something failed on the panel you could just remove and replace. Customers could choose either button or touchscreen options and they could be used across multiple car models and model years. It seems like such an obvious answer.
 

ChrisH1

Posts: 208   +108
Many of the functions I need to do in my Tesla are available on the steering wheel, as buttons. And I can customize which functions are there, to a large extent, depending on what's important to me.

Some of them are on touchscreen not buttons, - but - are available as voice commands, input of which is done with a button press. So, when I want to adjust the aircon temperature, it's press button on steering wheel - no need to look away - 'set temperature to 22' - done. I think that's even safer than buttons.

It's not a perfect system though improves with time as software rolls out, some commands are not available or don't work perfectly, but common things like temperature, seat heaters, demisters etc certainly are.
 

Theinsanegamer

Posts: 3,550   +6,003
Frankly touchscreens should be banned in cars, they are dangerous. Drivers around here are always swerving while looking at that dumb screen in their center console instead of the road, palming it trying to adjust the fan or whatever.

There was nothing wrong with buttons.

Also, I want physical gauges, not a screen, because I'm tired of staring at screens 24/7. You can glance at a physical gauge and read it without staring at the dumb thing. Digital displays OTOH..... Given how utterly, insanely expensive cars have gotten lately, they can bite the extra cost of physical buttons.
 

Theinsanegamer

Posts: 3,550   +6,003
Cars should have a flat rectangular area in the center of the dash with a magnet in each corner and a data port somewhere. Then you could just seat a button panel into the recess, and if something failed on the panel you could just remove and replace. Customers could choose either button or touchscreen options and they could be used across multiple car models and model years. It seems like such an obvious answer.
We had that once, it was the DIN radio standard. But that wasnt stylish enough......
 

ZackL04

Posts: 845   +647
Let me touch to navigate music apps or library + GPS. The rest? Physical button please.

My wives’ 2011 MKX has touch “buttons” and touch sliders for volume and HVAC

We hate that aspect of her car. You can feel where they are but have to tap just the right spot multiple times to increase or decrease temp. To increase or decrease fan speed or volume you have to slide your finger across a button. Its jumpy as hell

Just an awful setup. We use the steering wheel controls whenever we can
 

liammac002

Posts: 43   +11
Many of the functions I need to do in my Tesla are available on the steering wheel, as buttons. And I can customize which functions are there, to a large extent, depending on what's important to me.

Some of them are on touchscreen not buttons, - but - are available as voice commands, input of which is done with a button press. So, when I want to adjust the aircon temperature, it's press button on steering wheel - no need to look away - 'set temperature to 22' - done. I think that's even safer than buttons.

It's not a perfect system though improves with time as software rolls out, some commands are not available or don't work perfectly, but common things like temperature, seat heaters, demisters etc certainly are.

that's great until you're listening to music or talking to your friend in the car. who wants to stop a conversation to adjust the temperature? or if you're listening to music, you have to pause it for the mic to hear you I'm guessing. It's a compromise compared to buttons that's pretending to be a handy feature.
 

DixieFatline

Posts: 18   +36
When will they learn to give users direct access with a keyboard and mouse to the car's computer? Switch on the heated seats? No problem.

Start menu -> Programs -> Interior -> Temperature and AC -> Heated seats (provided you paid your subscription plan)

Of course some drivers will prefer the command line as that will provide you the choice of adding parameters so you can choose high/low heat etc.
 

Fearghast

Posts: 568   +489
Well, duh :-D
One of the questions I had for the dealer, when I was about to place an order for my car, was if the Europe gets the Japanese or the US version - the US version gets the 11" display with no knobs and few buttons, JAP version has 8" screen with buttons and knobs for pretty much everything ;)
I kinda dig the new infotainment system Toyota released recently for some of their cars and upcoming 2023 models - it's so simple, there are almost no car settings there, no car setting that you would like to change while driving that is.
I like the eyes on the road approach, as it feels like more and more accidents on the road are caused by distracted drivers.
 

whateversa

Posts: 86   +111
The first time I got a touch screen in a car, I realized my eyes are taken off the road longer than in the past to do simple things like aircon control, demisting the window... Safety was my biggest concern - with the right combination of events, someone could die or end up in a wheel chair. With my previous cars, you could just feel for the buttons as you got used to the car... barely ever looked down at the dashboard.

Look for reverse cam and GPS a screen is great... but for most other things I prefer simple buttons so I can focus on the road.
 

ChrisH1

Posts: 208   +108
that's great until you're listening to music or talking to your friend in the car. who wants to stop a conversation to adjust the temperature? or if you're listening to music, you have to pause it for the mic to hear you I'm guessing. It's a compromise compared to buttons that's pretending to be a handy feature.
It's not a big deal. If you try it, we're used to interruption in usual life. It only takes a second or two. Just 'hang on a sec' 'set temperature to 23' 'ok, you were saying, sorry'
 

BobDoleStillAliv

Posts: 37   +61
In other news, Water is wet!!

This is obviously true, but a well designed touch screen isn't much of an impediment. Its when you have to dig through menus to find the item you need to use that its a big problem
 

Scrye74

Posts: 64   +110
I drive trucks and rarely cars so I guess I am not seeing what everyone else is. In my 2021 Silverado, most of the features I use, outside of GPS, have buttons and/or knobs that duplicate what is available on the touch screen. I use both equally for the radio/streaming audio and, for the A/C, I use the knobs and buttons almost exclusively. I like the combination of touch and buttons. I hope, for trucks at least, that they keep making them that way.
 

sreams

Posts: 332   +473
that's great until you're listening to music or talking to your friend in the car. who wants to stop a conversation to adjust the temperature? or if you're listening to music, you have to pause it for the mic to hear you I'm guessing. It's a compromise compared to buttons that's pretending to be a handy feature.

You don't have to pause the music. You simply press the voice command button on the steering wheel and the music temporarily drops in volume.

I'd say it is actually safer than using buttons for certain tasks. If you are trying to set the climate control to a particular temperature, you don't need any visual feedback to do so. Your eyes can always be on the road.