Study Suggests That Hardware Buttons in Cars Are Safer and Quicker to Use Than Touchscreens

Frank Landymore, writing for The Byte on a study conducted by Swedish car magazine Vi Bilägare:

Over the summer, the magazine conducted tests across 12 models of cars — eleven modern, along with one 2005 Volvo with physical controls — and allowed test drivers to get to know the ins and outs of the vehicles. The tests themselves were simple: drivers were instructed to cruise down an empty airstrip at 68 miles per hour and were timed on the completion of four infotainment tasks, ranging from adjusting the AC to messing with the radio.

The Swedish magazine found that the 2005 Volvo far outperformed the modern, infotainment screen equipped cars, with a driver completing all four tasks in just ten seconds and 1,000 feet traveled.

Meanwhile, the best time in the modern cars was nearly 14 seconds. But even these speeds were relative outliers, because for the majority of infotainment equipped vehicles, it took well over 20 seconds and at least 2,000 feet.

I am nearly certain that everyone knows this is true, especially the designers at car companies. The reason that cars are largely switching to mostly touchscreen controls is the same reason phones switched — software is more flexible than hardware. Cars today do more than cars from 2005 did. But in the same way that all phones still have some hardware buttons (volume, power, mute), cars should too. The trick is getting the balance right. A couple of recent cars I’ve driven have definitely gotten that balance wrong.

It’s also the case that as cars take baby steps toward self-driving, previously stateful hardware controls need to become stateless. A traditional turn signals sticks in place until you complete the turn. That’s tricky with a car that can turn itself. Or just think about volume knobs on stereo equipment. In the old days, the physical knob indicated the volume level, usually on a scale of 0–10 (but not always, of course). Nowadays, though, playback volume is generally adjusted directionally, up or down, and the knob or buttons don’t indicate where the level is set, because the level is a value stored in software, and indicated on a display.

We’re not going back to hardware buttons for everything, but we have a long way to go until touchscreens surpass the usability of familiar hardware buttons.

Friday, 6 January 2023