Buttons outperform touchscreens in cars, and now there’s data to prove it

Zoom / Not all progress is good.

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It may be too early to warn of extinction, but on some new cars, buttons are becoming harder to find. With the screen having to go into the dashboard anyway (thanks to things like backup camera requirements) and the fact that people are increasingly not thinking of a car without Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, touch screens are making life easier for automakers in terms of design and stereo.

It just doesn’t make life easier for drivers. Instead, we’re dealing with bad interfaces that don’t create muscle memory but instead distract us while we’re driving. And now, the Swedish automobile publishing house Vi Bilägare has the data to prove it.

VB tested 11 new cars alongside a 2005 Volvo C70, timing the time it took to complete each car’s to-do list. These steps included turning on the seat heater, increasing the cabin temperature, turning on the defroster, adjusting the radio, resetting the trip computer, turning off the screen, and dimming the instruments.

The old Volvo was the clear winner. “The four tasks are handled within ten flat seconds, during which the car is driven 306 meters at a speed of 110 km / h [1,004 feet at 68 mph],” VB found. Most other cars required twice as long, or more, to complete the same tasks.

VB says that “an important aspect of this test is that drivers have had time to familiarize themselves with the vehicles and their infotainment systems before the test begins.” With the satanic lawyer’s hat on for a second, most drivers who regularly drive regularly drive the same car, gaining more knowledge over months and years than a journalist does after a week with a new model. But this kind of long-term adaptation is the user’s conformity to the car’s desires, shouldn’t good design be the opposite?

Why did they press the button on the entire touch interfaces

VB blames the switch from Bottons to screens with designers who “want a clean interior with minimal switches.” That’s fair, but I don’t think we can count accountants either. If everything could be accomplished by touching the screen, the company also wouldn’t have to pay for the plastic and wire the buttons are made of, nor the time it would take for someone to turn them into buttons or install them in a car.

Even with touch screens, we can see in the prevalence of scores given by VB for the various touchscreen cars that matter design. You won’t find nearly any buttons on the Tesla Model 3, and we mentioned no buttons on the Subaru Outback in our review, but both performed well in VB tests. And VW’s use of capacitive touch (versus physical touch) for the central stack controls appears to be a completely wrong usability decision, with ID.3 at the bottom of the stack in VB scores.

I’m not surprised that the BMW iX fared well; Although it has a touch screen, you are not obligated to use it. BMW’s rotary iDrive controller is naturally within reach, and there are permanent controls lined up around it under an interesting-looking piece of wood. It’s an early implementation of what the company calls shy technology, and it’s a design direction I very much look forward to seeing evolve in the future.

Again, there are examples of automakers doing this better than others. For the past two weeks, I’ve spent time on an Acura MDX and Mazda CX-50, neither of which uses a touchscreen infotainment system. Neither of them could do better than 19 mpg, which is frankly awful in 2022, but the CX-50 at least distinguished itself for ease of use when it came to the infotainment system.

Mazda’s latest system has been criticized for being a convertible, but odds are, the driver uses Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, and is actually quite easy to use with the rotary console and its hard-buttons, which, again, is the place for you. The right hand expects them to be (or left, in a right-hand drive car).

The more expensive Acura also makes the infotainment screen out of reach. It’s a high-resolution screen that’s befitting an expensive car, and the MDX’s infotainment system is far more capable than the CX-50 in terms of applications and features. I also absolutely love the design and the fonts, although it’s obviously a very personal thing.

I won’t drag you into the depth of my current feelings about Acura’s “real touchpad”, just a high-end version, mostly polite. It has a 1:1 relationship between the screen and the pad, so it doesn’t work at all like any other trackpad in any other car you might drive. This means that it requires a lot of focus to use it, especially if you are trying to interact with CarPlay. Needless to say, “requires focus to use” is probably the last quality anyone would want in an infotainment system.

I’m not surprised that old Volvo wins, as it dates back to a time when most functions were controlled by individual buttons and when infotainment wasn’t really there yet. And in some ways, the tests were done on strengths — there’s no Android Auto or CarPlay, and the only safe way your phone shows directions is if you bring a suction cup holder. Be careful what you put pressure on if anyone is sitting in the back seat. On this old-fashioned Volvos, one of these buttons drops the rear headrests, which are kind of heavy and you desperately want to go back into the horizontal orientation with absolute disregard for the skulls of anyone sitting in their path.

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