Carmakers are increasingly moving away from physical controls in the cabin in favour of massive touchscreens. Maybe that’s too much of a good thing. 

Screens. These days, we simply can’t seem to get away from the damned things. Everywhere you look, people are staring at their smartphone, laptop, or desktop computer screen. In the office, many of us used to spend 8-10 hours in front of a laptop, sometimes working, sometimes pretending to work. With the pandemic-induced work-from-home scenario, the amount of time we spend glued to some screen or the other has only increased. 

Hours of non-stop web browsing, social media usage, watching YouTube videos, and online gaming, chatting,
and shopping has reduced our attention spans, and might be ruining our eyes, but we still can’t figure out ways to get away from the all-pervasive, omnipresent screen. On the contrary, screens are reaching out for an even bigger chunk of our lives; they’re moving out from our homes and offices, and taking over our… cars. We don’t know if manufacturers believe that big, colourful touchscreens are helpful in a car, or they’re giving in to peer pressure and putting in bigger screens because everyone else is doing it, or even whether they are simply using them because it helps sell more cars because most customers seem to think screens are terribly cool.  

1966 Jaguar S-Type
1966 Jaguar S-Type

Chasing cool, yes. Today, most car buyers think it’s incredibly ‘cool’ to not have physical control buttons in the car, and have all controls integrated into a touchscreen. Sure, bright, colourful touchscreens look pretty futuristic and elegant when used in cars since they do away with the clutter of too many physical buttons. However, most users don’t realise that touchscreens can be very distracting since they are hard to use when the car is on the move. 

With physical buttons — even a lot of them — the mind can adapt and learn their precise placement; with ‘muscle memory’, one can reach out to the exact button that one needs to operate in a car, without actually needing to look away from the road, or looking away for maybe just a split second, if at all. It’s a bit like using a typewriter or a computer keyboard; there are dozens of keys there, but most users learn to type with both hands without looking at the keyboard at all. Try typing on an iPad screen without looking at it, and you’ll see what we mean. Using a car’s infotainment touchscreen, with its host of menus and sub-menus, without actually looking at the screen is simply not impossible. And in a fast-moving vehicle, looking away from the road and peering into a screen for many seconds at a time can be disastrous.   

1976 Audi 100GL
1976 Audi 100GL

While some of the trends towards fitting bigger, flashier screens in cars may well be the mere pursuit of coolness, some of it is definitely based on sheer need   

If we take a quick look at how cars’ instrumentation and dashboard layouts have evolved since the 1950s, it’s clear there has been a sea change in this area, especially over the last ten years. Back in the ’50s and the ’60s, instrument panels in cars were pretty simple and quite basic; in mainstream cars, at least, all you had was a speedometer and switches for operating the lights, turn-indicators, and windshield wipers. Some cars had a rev-counter, a fuel gauge, and dials that showed oil pressure and engine temperature. Radios and cassette players came later. Some higher-end cars had air-conditioners, but that was about it, and things were easily controlled via buttons and switches. Still, there were a few slightly weird outliers.   

The 1979 Aston Martin Lagonda was fitted with multiple LED screens for displaying information (these were replaced with cathode-ray displays by the mid-1980s) and the American- made Buick Riviera, which had a 9-inch touchscreen infotainment system back in, wait for it, 1986. But most manufacturers continued to stick with conventional controls for a long time, though; something like a mid-1990s Mercedes-Benz E-Class has a dashboard layout that’s far simpler and more basic than, say, a modern-day Kia Sonet. And a 2005 Audi Quattro TT had no screens whatsoever, and an instrument panel that would be immediately familiar even to someone who started driving in the 1960s.

1983 Volkswagen Golf GTi Mk1
1983 Volkswagen Golf GTi Mk1

However, by the late-1990s and early-2000s, some high-end cars (the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, Lexus LS400, and BMW 7 Series, to name just a few) were beginning to get fairly complicated dashboard layouts with dozens of buttons, switches, and dials for controlling an ever-increasing range of functions. That was also when small LCD screens started appearing as part of the instrumentation; these could be controlled via a physical control unit that allowed the driver to scroll through the information. 

BMW then took a big step forward in the early-2000s with the iDrive, a first-of-its-kind automotive control unit that allowed the driver to control a whole range of the car’s functions via a rotary dial and connected screen. But it was not very well received initially because of the complication and difficulty involved in the operation. Gradually, though, it found acceptance, as BMW continued to improve the system.

1991 Jaguar XJS
1991 Jaguar XJS

From the late-2000s and early-2010s, iDrive-type controllers proliferated on high-end luxury cars. Tesla kicked things up a further few notches six to seven years ago, by doing away with physical controls altogether. The upstart EV manufacturer was one of the first carmakers to plonk a massive touchscreen in its cars. Since then, there has been no looking back, with manufacturers seemingly trying to outdo each other in fitting ever bigger and more complex touchscreen-based infotainment systems in their cars. 

While some of the trends towards fitting bigger, flashier screens in cars may well be the mere pursuit of coolness, some of it is definitely based on sheer need. As late as, say, just 15 years ago, drivers had much less to contend with in a car. Turn on the AC, switch on the cassette- or CD-player and, well, drive. Things are very different now. Almost every mid-to-high-end car provides you with a bewildering array of choices — from multiple driving modes, traction control settings, smartphone connectivity options, Bluetooth devices, radio and MP3-player settings, maps, navigation settings, and more. You can, with some cars, make the suspension softer or harder, raise or lower the ride height, increase or decrease the engine’s levels of throttle response, alter gearshift patterns for automatic transmissions, and set up multiple, separate, climate- controlled ‘zones’ in the cabin, with different temperature levels. 

1999 BMW 750iL
1999 BMW 750iL

Sure, most cars still have physical buttons for controlling things like the AC and the music system. But for many other functions found on many modern vehicles, separate physical buttons for every function aren’t possible. There simply isn’t enough space on the dashboard. Screens solve some of that problem since they display multiple menus, with secondary functions grouped under sub-menus, which the driver can scroll through. The flip side is that these systems are a big distraction and, two, for many drivers — especially older drivers who aren’t perhaps as tech- savvy as most of the younger lot — these menu-driven touchscreen systems can be intimidating or, in some cases, even downright incomprehensible. 

Forcing drivers to abandon familiar buttons and switches and get them to fiddle with complicated infotainment screens while driving, which also means they’re not looking at the road when they should be, probably isn’t a very good idea. On the other hand, young whippersnappers who want to remain glued to their smartphones even when they’re driving need to realise that driving a car demands all their attention. When driving, people should keep their eyes on the road and their brains on high alert instead of messing with things like Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. 

2005 Audi Quattro TT Sport
2005 Audi Quattro TT Sport

So, one might ask, what is the way ahead? There’s no going back on the sheer range of functions (connectivity, infotainment, and customisation of dynamic performance) that are now available even on mid-range cars, and having two dozen buttons and switches on the dashboard isn’t an option. At the same time, touchscreens can be a serious distraction. 

One solution that some manufacturers are now employing is voice control for selected functions. Though it’s still early days for this technology, voice recognition systems still need a lot of work before performing reliably well for all drivers and a wide range of accents. But with further development, voice commands — basic implementations of which are already beginning to find their way into many cars — may offer a way to avoid excessive use of touchscreens. 

2005 Aston Martin DB9
2005 Aston Martin DB9

While touchscreens can remain for navigation and a few other selected functions, they must be supplemented by voice commands and, where feasible, even good old buttons and switches  

The caveat here is that in-car voice assistance systems, instead of recognising only selected phrases that have been pre-programmed in their memory, will have to learn to process natural speech. AI-driven voice-activated digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and the Google Assistant have already made significant inroads in this area, can understand many languages, and deal with a wide range of different accents. There’s no reason why carmakers can’t invest in similar AI-driven voice command tech for their next generation of cars. 

Admittedly, there might not be one single ‘best’ way to control the many, many functions that a modern car offers. However, what is clear is that the use of massive touchscreens alone isn’t the way forward. While touchscreens can remain for navigation and perhaps a few other selected functions, they must be supplemented by voice commands and, where feasible, even good old buttons and switches. Old tech working hand in hand with the new might be the only way forward for the foreseeable future. 

Tesla Model 3 2017
Tesla Model 3 2017