Car touchscreens aren’t actually a good idea, but here’s why they’re here to stay

‘Great phone software is immersive. A car interface must do the opposite’
by Paul Horrell | Feb 19, 2022
PHOTO: BMW

Here we go again. I’m sitting with a car interface designer and being told that I’m too old, and that what I want isn’t what customers want. This time it’s a BMW engineer, and it’s the new operating system being rolled out on the iX and i4. Today’s customers, she tells me, want everything to be on the screen. It’s only a few old buffers like me who want physical switches for the climate controls or multimedia or driver assist.

With a weary sigh, I ask why. Like I always ask why. Because, comes the answer, as the answer always comes, because customers use tablets and phones and they like it and they’re good at it. At which point, once again, my voice rises to a near-hysterical scream. What is good for an iPad, I plead, is not what is good for a car.

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At home, I drink my coffee out of little glass espresso cups. They hold the heat and let me check I’ve pulled a good shot with a decent crema. If I’m drinking coffee in the car, I use a plastic vessel with a lid and just a small drinking hole. Because at highway speeds or on a bumpy road, the combination of glass and open hot liquid is bound to end badly. Same with controlling the car’s functions: A screen is essentially non-tactile and you jab at it with your finger.

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Which means you have to look where you jab, and also keep your finger steady. So, context then: What works just fine when you’re sitting on the sofa with your iPad does not work well out on the road. And that’s not all: Great phone or tablet software is immersive. It draws you in, holds your attention and captures your gaze. A car interface must do the opposite. It must reject your gaze and deflect it back to the road.

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So why this muddle-headed and dangerous obsession with sweeping away the switches? Reason one: See above, the customers asked. Well, educate the customer, I say. Reason two: Modern cars have a lot of functions and you just wouldn’t have room for switches for everything, and if you did you’d never find the right one among the forest of them. So, yes, we do need some menu items. Just not everything.

Reason three is revenue. Consider a car that comes with all the sensors and actuators that could be repurposed for automated parking. But it’s an optional extra. If it has a button, you couldn’t add it later. If it were a screen menu item, they could sell it, for a fixed monthly fee, as an over-the-air ‘function on demand.’ Reason four is cost. Actual switches need hardware and wiring. A screen control needs only lines of code.

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In the old days, most mainstream cars had a little row of clumsily blanked-off switch holes in the dash, reminding you that your tawdry base variant was lacking the equipment of the up-spec version. That used to annoy me. Now I’m all nostalgic for it.

NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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PHOTO: BMW
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