Automakers Sticking with Screens Are Going to Receive Bad Safety Ratings in Europe


automakers sticking with screens are going to receive bad safety ratings in europe

Updated European safety certifications may discourage global automakers from leaning so heavily upon touch controls in the future. While not a formal government regulator, the European New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) is extremely influential in a manner similar to the United States’ Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). These are the entities testing the crash worthiness of modern automobiles, or bench-marking industry safety standards, and Euro NCAP has elected to make distracted driving a major issue moving forward. By 2026, any vehicles sold within the European market will need to include physical controls to be deemed truly safe.

Euro NCAP anticipates downgrading the safety ratings of any new vehicles that lack physical controls (buttons, knobs, stalks, switches, etc.) for turn signals, hazard lights, windscreen wipers, horn, and mandatory emergency calling systems that are supposed to activate whenever the vehicle senses it’s been in an accident. While additional items may be added to this list, the current plan is to focus on the fundamentals while likewise trying to determine how distracting the overall interface happens to be for motorists.

The concern is that modern controls require drivers to take their eyes off the road. According to The Sunday Times, European vehicles that continue doing so will be deemed ineligible to receive the coveted Euro NCAP five-star safety rating.

From The Times:

The intervention by Euro NCAP, the automotive industry safety body, is a warning shot to carmakers that are rushing to install ever more prominent touchscreens on their vehicles’ dashboards. The Mercedes EQS, for example, boasts a 56 [inch] “hyperscreen”.

Screens were initially used for sat navs and infotainment, such as music and radio playback, but the trend has been to keep adding driving functions traditionally accessed through physical controls.

It is tempting for carmakers to eliminate hands-on controls where possible because it not only results in a sleek and minimalist look for the cabin but saves on production costs, reduces weight and enables the manufacturer to easily update the software.

But safety campaigners are dismayed at the trend, which they fear will undermine compliance with the ban on using mobile phones at the wheel. The offence carries a punishment of six penalty points and a £200 fine, alongside the loss of a licence for anyone who only passed their driving test in the previous two years.

One of the more frustrating aspects of the modern era of motoring is how influential other regions have become. While there are still models targeting specific markets, many vehicles are now global products and plenty of nations just copy each other in terms of government directives.

On the U.S. market, this trend has resulted in a bizarre regulatory mix. The nation has been aggressively pursuing European-style emission mandates and electrification targets while also encouraging manufacturers to sell the largest pickup trucks and SUVs in history to exploit regulatory loopholes. Meanwhile, the chicken tax effectively guarantees smaller, foreign-made trucks (like the legendary Toyota Hilux and new pint-sized Hilux Champ) cannot be sold on American soil without finding regulatory loopholes of their own.

Unfortunately, the U.S. market has found itself in a position where buyers are starting to shy away from ultra-large vehicles with MSRPs upwards of $60,000 and buyers have found themselves pivoting to brands that were wise enough to retain their more economy minded models. However, this is just one example and global regulatory pressure can sometimes work in your favor.

Despite significant evidence that shifting away from physical controls was a major factor in the uptick in automobile accidents witnessed since 2015, the industry has been eager to retain touch controls. This is presumably due to the fact that they’re often cheaper to implement and often provide drivers with opportunities to interface with features the industry believes will create additional revenue streams. That said, European NCAP safety standards may actually help swing the pendulum back into a more reasonable direction.

“The overuse of touchscreens is an industry-wide problem, with almost every vehicle-maker moving key controls onto central touchscreens, obliging drivers to take their eyes off the road and raising the risk of distraction crashes,” stated Euro NCAP’s director of strategic development Matthew Avery. “New Euro NCAP tests due in 2026 will encourage manufacturers to use separate, physical controls for basic functions in an intuitive manner, limiting eyes-off-road time and therefore promoting safer driving.”

Euro NCAP may not be an official part of the government. But the group sets the climate for modern safety trends and will undoubtedly be influential when determining future regulatory standards. In the interim, whether or not tomorrow’s vehicles comply will be left to the discretion of individual companies. Without fines, many automakers will probably continue rolling the dice on the value proposition provided by having drivers reliant on touchscreens. However, the interface has been broadly unpopular with a majority of today’s drivers and subsequent bad ratings from safety organizations are poised to shift the trend.

Late last year, BMW CEO Oliver Zipse suggested touchscreen-based interfaces would eventually be made illegal. The statement was originally assumed to be an insult directed toward German rivals (mainly Mercedes-Benz) that have been more willing to abandon physical controls. But he may have a point, especially if safety groups continue focusing on distracted driving.

“In 10 years, that is gone. Probably the regulator will not allow it,” he told Automotive News. “If you have to look down to operate your car, we think it’s a big mistake.”

This could likewise be bad news for companies like Tesla and Volkswagen Group. The latter business has recently embraced minimalist interiors heavily reliant on interactive screens while the former has always done this. But the trend is industry wide with only a subset of brands going against the grain.

Don’t assume the world is going back to the old ways, however. European laws have mandated things like in-cabin cameras that perpetually monitor the level of driver engagement. Those rules are supposed to come into effect in July of 2026. Automakers have also started implementing more options for voice command, suggesting that would be preferable to buttons in terms of maximizing occupant safety. While it’s certainly possible those changes will help reduce distracted driving, it still represents the standardization of invasive technologies that may also land on our shores thanks to the same European influence that’s likely to give us back some buttons on the dashboard.

[Image: Mercedes-Benz]

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