Experts Say a Mix of Touchscreen and Physical Controls are Best for Drivers

Looking cool doesn’t make touchscreens better

  • New tests show that drivers take longer to carry out tasks with touchscreens than with physical controls.
  • Cars with physical controls are being phased out in favor of all-screen interfaces.
  • A hybrid system of touchscreen and physical buttons might be the best solution, allowing tactile control and a live interface when required.
Person using a touchscreen in a car

Glenn Lindberg / Vi Bilägare

New tests show that drivers are safer when they ditch touchscreens for physical controls, but that doesn’t mean we should forgo them altogether, experts say.

Research by Swedish auto magazine Vi Bilägare looked at how long it took drivers to carry out basic in-car interactions while driving various cars that featured large touchscreen interfaces. A 17-year-old Volvo V70 was also added as the control, a vehicle with no touchscreen, relying instead on old-fashioned buttons and knobs. Cars with touchscreens require the driver to look away from the road for significantly longer periods than when driving the analog vehicle. Experts agree touchscreens can be problematic, but they have positives, too.

“Physical buttons are good for very short (and especially binary) tasks,” Chris Schreiner, a director at UX Syndicated Research, agreed when speaking with Lifewire via email. “A good vehicle uses a mix of [different] types of interfaces, optimizing each.” One of those interfaces wasn’t tested by Vi Bilägare and could hold the answer. “Voice is (supposed to be) good for more complex tasks like searching for media or setting a destination in your satnav.”

Cold, Hard Numbers

Map touchscreen in a car

Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

During its testing, Vi Bilägare had someone carry out a number of in-car tasks while driving around an airfield at 110 km/h (68 mph.) Cars from numerous manufacturers were included in the test, with BMW, Dacia, Hyundai, and Mercedes just some of those involved. The cars chosen included both budget (Dacia) and luxury (Mercedes, BMW) models, with the mid-range also represented by a number of other manufacturers. A Tesla Model 3 was also included — the vehicle is known for its large touchscreen and having very few physical controls throughout its entire cabin.

A hybrid solution would work best when people have a main task like driving to do.

Vi Bilägare’s suite of tasks required the driver to activate the vehicle’s heated seat, turn on the radio, reset the trip computer, and more but none of the tasks were extraordinary and were likely to be things carried out during daily driving. In terms of results, the 2005 Volvo V70 required that the driver spend just ten seconds pressing buttons and twiddling knobs. The vehicle traveled 306 meters during that time.

By contrast, the MG Marvel R performed the worst, requiring a full 44.6 seconds to do the same tasks and traveling 1,372 meters during that period. The only modern car that came close to matching its analog rival was the Volvo C40 (13.7 seconds and 417 meters.)

A Matter of Safety

Graphic showing the response times for each car

Vi Bilägare

Taking attention away from the road has the potential to cause accidents, but distractions come in many forms. Research carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) found that drivers normally react to something within just one second when they are paying full attention to the road. That time increased by 57% when using an in-car touchscreen, a figure higher than when texting (35%) and having a legal amount of alcohol in their system (12%.)

Neale Kinnear, TRL’s head of behavioral science, reported that “taking your eyes off the road for two seconds can double the risk of having a crash, yet a driver can spend up to 20 seconds looking at a touchscreen to perform a simple task.”

Don’t Ditch Screens Just Yet

Person driving on a road with a car screen in front of them

Lu ShaoJi / Getty Images

Some experts believe it would be a mistake to go back to an age when buttons were the only way to control cars. Instead, they think that a hybrid system of touchscreens and well-placed physical controls could be the answer carmakers have been looking for.

"Most people use a touch screen mobile device without much difficulty," Reginé Gilbert, an Industry Assistant Professor at NYI Tandon School of Engineering and a teacher of UX design at General Assembly, told Lifewire via email. "Driving with touchscreens can be a distraction and a danger." But that doesn't mean that touchscreens don't have their place.

"A hybrid solution would work best when people have a main task like driving to do," added Gilbert. "Tactile solutions give someone the ability to feel something without having to look at it. Touch screens are definitely better suited for some things more than others."

Florens Verschelde, a UX engineer with StackBlitz, believes carmakers should look to another industry for inspiration when mixing physical controls with virtual ones. "[This is] why pro cameras have physical dials, not touchscreen-first UIs—but it did not stop some manufacturers from putting car controls behind a touchscreen," they wrote on Twitter.

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