If you’ve ever piloted a modern vehicle, you’ve likely noticed that touchscreens have started supplanting physical controls. You’ve also probably found that they’re not as easy to interface with as the buttons, switches, and knobs they’re replacing. Well, there’s another study out that’s supporting what drivers have known for years – touchscreens don’t make for intuitive vehicle controls and may even make the whole process of getting to your destination a little more treacherous.
While we’ve seen similar studies conducted in the past, Swedish automotive magazine Vi Bilägare conducted a fairly comprehensive test to determine the difference between modern, touchscreen-laden vehicles and their button-reliant predecessors. As you have undoubtedly predicted already, the older setups were the easiest to use.
The outlet seems to have originally set out to compare the touchscreen used in 10 modern vehicles to see who came out on top. But it also threw in a 2005 Volvo V70 to see if an older interface could still hang and it ended up proving itself to be the “easiest car to understand and operate, by a large margin.”
Considering how badly the old Volvo trounced literally every other vehicle tested, that’s an incredibly generous statement. Testers were given time to familiarize themselves with all of the vehicles (10 similarly equipped modern cars and the well-appointed V70) before being issued a series of tasks they would be required to complete as quickly as possible while traveling at 68 mph. This included activating the heated seats; increasing the interior temperature setting by two degrees; switching on the defroster; changing the radio to a specific station; resetting the trip computer; placing the instrumentation lights to their lowest setting; and shutting down the center display.
The 2005 Volvo V70 took just 10 seconds to complete the above tasks, moving just 306 meters within that time frame with the driver barely having to take their eyes off the road. The next fastest vehicles – a modern Volvo C40 and Dacia Sandero – took 13 seconds (almost 14 for the C40) due to the relative simplicity of their touchscreen user interface and retention of physical controls for some frequently used features.
Things were substantially worse on vehicles where more tasks had to be completed via a centrally located screen. The Subaru Outback spent 19.4 seconds running the gauntlet (covering 592 meters), the Tesla Model 3 took 23.5 seconds (717 meters), the Hyundai Ioniq 5 needed 26.7 seconds (815 meters), and the BMW iX required 30.4 seconds (928 meters). While other vehicles were tested – which you’re welcome to peruse here – we’ve only mentioned models that also appear on the North American market.
But you get the gist. More touchscreen time means a larger window for distracted driving. Testers even noted that touchscreens offering a relatively simple interface still required more direct attention than tapping a button – something the outlet suggested could be mitigated by having the screen mounted higher up.
Still, with fatal accidents climbing in recent years, one wonders why more attention wasn’t given to what looks to be an obvious problem. When mobile phones became commonplace, regulators cited them as dangerous distractions and many state legislatures moved to ban their use from behind the wheel. But the automotive industry has worked tirelessly to re-implement them into the dashboard of all modern vehicles, adding new features that encourage drivers to network other devices to their car. It seems like a recipe for disaster. But we know why it was done if we’re willing to be honest with ourselves.
Automakers know that consumers can be dazzled by increasingly large touch screens. In fact, massive screens have become a hallmark of luxury vehicles and obligatory on EVs. They also provide new revenue streams as they open the door to corporate partnerships that can be marketed to drivers and ways of offering new options that can be purchased after taking possession of the car. Manufacturers have also learned it’s often cheaper to install a single touchscreen that controls everything than to design a user-friendly allotment of buttons and switches.
“Inspiration for the screen-heavy interiors in modern cars comes from smartphones and tablets. Designers want a ‘clean’ interior with minimal switchgear, and the financial department wants to lower the cost,” Vi Bilägare wrote. “Instead of developing, manufacturing and keeping physical buttons in stock for years to come, car manufacturers are keen on integrating more functions into a digital screen which can be updated over time.”
Become a TTAC insider. Get the latest news, features, TTAC takes, and everything else that gets to the truth about cars first by subscribing to our newsletter.