That colourful touchscreen on your car’s dashboard looks nifty and makes the infotainment nicer to use, but have we reached the point where this technology actually becomes a hindrance?

We interact with touchscreens so frequently that we barely even notice their presence anymore, so it was only logical to have them spill over into our cars as well. In the beginning, they were only used for the infotainment interface, and that brought welcome improvements to the way we interact with our vehicles.

Unfortunately, a worrying trend is starting to gain ground, which threatens to cancel all the good things brought by integrating touchscreens into modern cars. This trend revolves around replacing physical controls with virtual on-screen controls, aiming to both simplify the interior design and increase the apparent level of technological sophistication on display.

Related: Range Rover does a great job of integrating touchscreens into a classy design - and it will soon become available in all-electric form. 

Why are manufacturers really doing this?

It’s primarily about money. Car manufacturers exist to turn profit, and one of the easiest ways to increase profit margins is by making their products less expensive to produce.

One of the obvious ways to make cars cheaper to make is to reduce the component count. By removing all the buttons, switches and knobs, and substituting those physical controls with virtual touch buttons on screens, they can use fewer components, which equals lower cost, which will then translate into greater profits.

This is a surprisingly easy task. Because all modern cars use an integrated data network to relay information to and from their various interlinked components, configuring a screen to take up duty as the main control interface is merely a matter of expanding its software to mine this data stream.

Sure, the press releases and most media reports will most likely bleat about the high-tech ambience created by a huge screen in middle of the cabin or the “driver-focused simplicity” of the total effect, but in the end it’s mainly about saving money.

The choice: Lots of buttons or a virtual interface?

There is no doubt that simplification is a noble cause, especially given the plethora of features and driver assistants found in modern cars. Just think back to any high-end BMW or Japanese luxomobile from the tail end of the 20th century - remember how confusing the rows and rows of switches were?

Manufacturers consequently decided to tackle this problem, with BMW’s iDrive system being one of the first attempts to reduce the button count to manageable levels. Other manufacturers were quick to follow with their own interpretations of this theme, with varying degrees of success. The logical step from a rotary controller to virtual buttons was literally just waiting for mass-produced touchscreens to become viable.

iDrive greatly simplified the BMW 7 Series interior, even if the first versions were not at all user-friendly.

For the most part, this approach works well, and many manufacturers have since standardised on a blend of physical controls for the major systems and virtual controls for more obscure functions. Less often-used car settings can viably be relegated to the screen, because shortcuts to (for example) adjust the ambient lighting or connect a mobile phone via Bluetooth aren’t really necessary.

Related: The 7 Series introduced the iDrive system, and the latest one is the best yet. Find your dream new or used BMW 7 here on CHANGECARS!

An all-digital dashboard looks futuristic, but may not be easy to use.

A good idea taken too far

But, as with most things in life, an excess of something good often has bad after-effects. This level of excess has now been reached by many manufacturers, because so many virtual controls are stashed behind an exhaustive stream of menus and sub-menus that the whole thing becomes impossible and dangerous to operate on the move.

The safety factors need closer examination, because the hazards appear from various angles. The most obvious issue here is driver distraction, because menu-based systems need a lot more concentration to operate - concentration the driver should be applying to the actual driving instead. Where physical switches can be operated by muscle memory after some practice, this fundamental part of human mechanics can never be accommodated by virtual controls.

There is the glaring issue of having a bright screen constantly in the driver’s peripheral vision as well. Not only does this add further distraction, but it also messes with the driver’s ability to discern contrast in low-light conditions. Simply put, peering at a backlit screen before looking back out at a dimly-lit road will undoubtedly lead to a good couple of seconds of night blindness.

There’s no need to stare at a screen too long if you’re looking for a new or used car - CHANGECARS makes car shopping quick, easy and safe!

Ford's SYNC 4A system does a great job of combining physical and virtual controls.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

Let’s first consider some examples of good touchscreen integration. Ford’s Sync 4 and the Stellantis (formerly FCA) Uconnect systems integrate vehicle settings, infotainment, and ventilation controls into a neat and user-friendly virtual bundle, and BMW’s iDrive and Audi’s MMI also eventually became good after a few generations.

All these successful interfaces have two things in common - the driver still has a dedicated cluster display; and their audio-, ventilation and some secondary controls have at least some physical buttons to allow quick adjustments without needing to stare at a screen for seconds at a time.

Subaru's StarLink system is especially unpleasant to use, and hides all the EyeSight controls behind multiple menu layers.

Other examples are less sorted in this regard, however. One offender here is Subaru, which currently hides its individual EyeSight driver aid package settings (with no option to “select all”) behind multiple layers of touchscreen menus interspersed with bouts of swipe-scrolling. There may be safety benefits to having a car with situational awareness, but the collision prevention system becomes extremely annoying when it prevents a gentle pullaway because it interprets a mere congested intersection as a life-threatening hazard.

And, because the system is programmed to default to “On To The Maximum”, the driver has to go through these menus every time they want to attempt driving in South African traffic during loadshedding. A simple on/off switch to just turn off everything at once would have saved much aggravation here, but no, the driver has to go through the whole menu. Every. Single. Time. This isn’t just picking on Subaru, mind you, because they are not the only manufacturer to implement this method of keeping the driver preoccupied.

The early Peugeot Citroen touchscreen interface was grainy in quality, slow to respond, and clunky to operate.

They are not the worst in this regard, either, because some Peugeots and Citroens only have their ventilation (HVAC) controls accessible through the touchscreen - no matter what else the screen is displaying, it has to be switched over to the HVAC display to do something as simple as adjusting the fan speed by poking at distant virtual buttons that often become invisible in direct sunlight. These are merely the examples which first came to mind, but there are many more offenders out there.

And then there’s Mazda, which actively discourages the use of touchscreen functionality but have now started adding it to ease smartphone mirroring regardless of its own objections. In reality, the Mazda rotary controller with some pushbuttons around it, paired with a clear driver’s cluster and physical audio- and HVAC controls, is the best compromise from a usability standpoint - but it unfortunately adds extra cost to their cars.

Related: Virtual interfaces and AI-enabled everything is the next big thing in the automotive world, as illustrated in this report from the 2024 CES in Las Vegas.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better

We can perhaps blame Tesla for introducing the “One Screen To Do Everything, But First Over-Complicate It” school of thought to interior ergonomics when they ditched the instrument cluster for the Model 3. According to the media officers and fanboys, this approach makes for a cleaner interior design, which may well be true. It also cuts costs, which is good for Tesla.

However, the fact that its driver is forced to stare down at a screen on the console to decipher vehicle speed cannot be good for safety, and for a few reasons. The first reason is the sheer distraction of looking so far away from the road, for as long as it takes to find the relevant readout.

The second reason involves the change in focus required to avert one’s glance from the road to the lower dashboard and then back again, a situation to which our eyes need precious fractions of a second to adjust. Perhaps the Subaru and Tesla collision avoidance systems are always on maximum alert because the engineers realized that their drivers will be distracted by the screens every so often?

The Chinese influence

It would also be unwise to discount the influence of China’s car-buying preferences, because the vehicles originating in that market definitely embrace their big screens - just witness the gigantic centre displays in the soon-to-arrive Omoda C9 and Jaecoo J7 models for evidence of this assertion.

Mercedes-Benz is leaning into this with its mega screen on the S-Class, too, because they sell loads of those over there. And, seeing as China is one of the most important global new-car markets all round, this preference will be foisted on an increasing number of new cars.

Related: Read how Mercedes-Benz is banking on AI to simplify the user experience in its cars.

The latest trend is to follow Tesla’s lead and rely only on the centre screen for all vehicle information and secondary controls. Consequently, the centre display has to grow even larger to accommodate more information while controlling an ever-growing number of comfort- and communication systems. Making matters worse , from a practical as well as visual point of view, some of these vehicles also go without a head-up display, so increased eye strain and amplified distraction will be guaranteed.

The way forward

There is no doubt that virtual interfaces are here to stay, but it’s probably safe to predict that we’re quickly approaching the tipping point where some manufacturers will start scaling back on their touchscreen worship, due to legislation if not their own volition.

Various studies have shown that fiddling with a car’s touchscreen while on the move can slow down a driver’s reactions by up to 50%, and may be just as dangerous as texting while driving or driving under the influence of alcohol. Consequently, it’s fair to assume that developed-world governments will soon start imposing restrictions regarding the legibility, visibility, functionality and size of touch interfaces and infotainment systems, to reduce the distractions currently being introduced.

Perhaps Lucid has the best answer to this conundrum, because the brilliant Air EV recently gained a head-up display to complement its high-res digital instrument cluster. However, its infotainment display does only that - infotainment and communication - and the left-hand touch panel has preset and unchangeable controls for lights and wipers programmed into its display.

Its HVAC, seats and setup functions are controlled by a large auxiliary display, which retracts into the dashboard when not in use. Seeing as each screen is dedicated to specific functions, there’s no need to faff about with the menus of a multi-function display. And, if one big colour touchscreen screams high-tech, imagine how high-tech four individual screens would be, especially if one of them even folds away!

Martin Pretorius


Shop for your next new or used car, with or without a big screen, on CHANGECARS.