Button Pusher

Many automakers are getting rid of good ol’ fashioned buttons and switches these days, in favor of touchscreen infotainment systems.

Now, new evidence shows those touchscreens are far less safe and efficient than the old school alternative, according to the findings of 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.

Screening Calls

It’s not the most rigorously empirical study and the sample size is small, but it is thought provoking in its implications.

There’s no doubt that infotainment systems are powerful, coming equipped with everything from 360 degree cameras to advanced GPS navigation. But when the interfaces aren’t efficient to use, and they control functions like windshield wipers or climate controls, it starts to get a little ridiculous.

Traditional buttons, knobs, and switches have a tactility that allow drivers to intuitively find and adjust them while keeping their eyes on the road. A slippery touchscreen does not. Analog controls are also permanently positioned, whereas a touchscreen may require additional navigation to reach a feature.

Has a push for elegant minimalism over simplicity, and a craze for smartphone-like tech, turned our cars into needlessly distracting machines? Surely there’s a happy medium.

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