Unsurprising

Matthew G. Saroff
2 min readAug 19, 2022

The difference will quite literally kill you

It turns out that physical buttons work better than touch screens in cars.

This shocking news surprises absolutely no one, except for automotive marketing departments, the interface designers who are paid to f%$# up user interfaces, and, of course, Elon Musk:

The screens in modern cars keep getting bigger. Design teams at most car manufacturers love to ditch physical buttons and switches, although they are far superior safety-wise.

That is the conclusion when Swedish car magazine Vi Bilägare performed a thurough test of the HMI system (Human-Machine Interface) in a total of twelve cars this summer.

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. 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.

So in what way have these screens affected safety? Vi Bilägare gathered eleven modern cars from different manufacturers at an airfield och measured the time needed for a driver to perform different simple tasks, such as changing the radio station or adjusting the climate control. At the same time, the car was driven at 110 km/h (68 mph). We also invited an ”old-school” car without a touchscreen, a 17-year-old Volvo V70, for comparison.

One important aspect of this test is that the drivers had time to get to know the cars and their infotainment systems before the test started.

………

The carmakers are keen to point out that many features now can be activated by voice. But the voice control systems are not always easy to use, they can’t control every function and they don’t always work as advertised, which is why the voice control systems were not tested in this experiment.

The results speak for themselves. The worst-performing car needs 1,400 meters to perform the same tasks for which the best-performing car only needs 300 meters.

This is the modern equivalent of tail fins, which at their height were impaling and slicing pedestrians.

Based on my experience with my rental car this week, I had the profound misfortune of being “upgraded” to a Ford Expedition with all the bells and whistles, because they were out of midsize cars.

It looks, and drives, like the Exxon Valdez, and all of the bells and whistles, whether it’s the multi-function screen, or the dial type shifter, make things worse.

I don’t like the fact that getting into the vehicle resembles climbing K2, and I dislike the view out of the vehicle, you can literally hide a kindergarten class from the driver, even.

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