It feels like almost every week, someone here at the AutoBuzz office (mostly me) will bemoan about how the horrible touchscreens are taking over our cars, but we believe we have good reason. Touchscreens are good for smartphones, but when it comes to a moving car, the sleek slates of glass can make basic tasks – like adjusting your air-con settings – a potentially dangerous endeavour.
We know we’re not alone in this. BMW and Polestar designers have already hinted that the age of the screen-city might soon be over, and Alfa Romeo has also committed to keeping screens in their cars to a minimum. But now, there’s finally a “scientific” study to confirm what we already know – touchscreens are harder to use than actual, physical buttons, thus making them more dangerous.
The study comes from Swedish car magazine Vi Bilägare, who gathered 11 different models ranging from a 17-year-old “old-school” Volvo V70 to the all-new BMW iX to study their human-machine interfaces (HMI).
Participants are asked to perform a set of simple tasks in all the cars, such as changing the radio station or adjusting the climate control, while driving at 110 km/h. The time taken and distance travelled for the drivers to complete the tasks in each car were then recorded and tabulated.
The publication also emphasised that the participants were also given time to get used to the systems in each of the cars to remove any variables stemming from unfamiliarity.
Unsurprisingly, the 17-year-old Volvo came in first in the tests, with participants requiring only 300 metres (roughly 10 seconds) on average to complete the tasks – more than a whole kilometre better than the worst performing car of the bunch: MG Marvel R (44.9 seconds).
Vi Bilägare notes that the BMW iX and Seat Leon performed decently in the tests, thanks to their mix of screens and buttons. However, the site argues that their systems are still too complicated, with both requiring roughly a kilometre to perform the tasks, and a lot can happen if you’re driving distracted over that distance in normal traffic.
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Screens aren’t inherently bad, however, as proven by cars like the Volvo C40 (identical to the XC40 inside), which required only 417 metres to complete the tasks in the test. The publication says the result is due to Volvo’s relatively simple layout and lack of unnecessary features, making it easier for users to access mission-critical controls.
Buttons aren’t completely faultless, too; Vi Bilägare noted that some of the buttons on the Volkswagen ID.4 and Seat Leon came without backlighting, making it “completely invisible at night” and a nightmare to use. Still, with some muscle memory (and proper buttons, not the touch-sensitive ones, thank you), they should perform way better than having to look at a touchscreen while driving.
Now, we understand that some of these decisions are completely out of the engineers hands. Accountants may push for touchscreens instead of buttons as they’re cheaper to implement, while designers could argue that it’s part of the new modern aesthetics.
All we’re saying is, look – science is on our side. Just give us the physical climate control buttons and knobs back, and we promise we’ll stop writing these articles every couple of months.
I’d fit in well in your office. I’ve been harping on about it too, that’s why I still find it easier to control the climate controls and infotainment in my Mazda with buttons and knobs and rotary dials than in the XC40 I’ve also been driving around. I thought it would be a matter of getting used to it, but it wasn’t.