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In Defense Of Screens

Screens have become a popular target of criticism in new cars. People say there are too many now. They’ve grown too big. Their menus are complicated and distracting. 

I say that’s hogwash. Screens are better than physical controls like buttons, switches, and knobs. And the real reason people have turned against them isn’t how they perform, but what they represent. 

Safety: The Big Bugaboo

The main complaint I’ve heard about screens in cars is that they’re less safe to use than traditional inputs like trusty buttons. That may be true in some cases, as a couple of studies conducted in the past few years suggest. The one I see cited most online is this one by a Swedish car magazine, which concluded that drivers need more time, and thus more distance traveled, to complete basic tasks using a screen compared to buttons.

This study, though, isn’t very scientific, or at least isn’t presented as such. Here’s how the magazine described its method. 

Vi Bilägare gathered eleven modern cars from different manufacturers at an airfield and measured the time needed for a driver to perform different simple tasks, such as changing the radio station or adjusting the climate control. At the same time, the car was driven at 110 km/h (68 mph). We also invited an ”old-school” car without a touchscreen, a 17-year-old Volvo V70, for comparison.

One important aspect of this test is that the drivers had time to get to know the cars and their infotainment systems before the test started.

I’ve got lots of questions. How many drivers participated and what were their ages? How were they chosen? How did they “get to know” each car and for how long (did each participant spend a week with all 12 vehicles in the test?). 

Answers to those questions might prove this study more credible than it first appears, but we don’t have them. My reservation to accept its conclusions also stems from the fact this is a study conducted by a car magazine. I’ve managed a number of large automotive publications and they don’t generally have the resources or expertise to perform legitimate scientific studies on their own. 

The second study seems more trustworthy, but its conclusion doesn’t target the use of screens directly. This study was conducted in partnership between AAA and the University of Utah. AAA has been conducting studies on distracted driving for years, so the use of more and more screens in cars inevitably showed up on its radar. 

In this 2019 study, researchers found new technology in cars, including screens, increased the amount of time it took older drivers to complete tasks compared to young people. The methodology looks legit: 128 drivers ages 21-36 and 55-75 participated in the study of six 2018 model-year vehicles.

The results indicate that, on average, older drivers (ages 55-75) removed their eyes and attention from the road for more than eight seconds longer than younger drivers (ages 21-36) when performing simple tasks like programming navigation or tuning the radio using in-vehicle infotainment technology. 

The study, though, examined not just using screens, but also voice command systems and center console controls, i.e. physical buttons. In fact, in the case of the screens, the conclusion of the study doesn’t suggest getting rid of them, but rather simplifying software menus. The point is that complicated technology of any kind, whether it be visual, auditory, or tactile, is less safe to use while driving, particularly for older drivers.

There are studies – real, legit studies – that actually conclude screens are safer to use than physical inputs in some cases. This one published in the journal Ergonomics was conducted by the Transportation Research Group, which is composed of the Faculty of Engineering and Environment at the University of Southampton in the UK, and Jaguar Land Rover. According to Casper Kessels, an automotive UX designer who writes The Turn Signal Blog, the study concludes “tertiary tasks are performed significantly faster via touch interactions when compared to indirect controls.” He defines tertiary tasks as “infrequent but require a high cognitive load and take longer to accomplish. Examples are filling in a destination in the navigation system or changing personal settings in the car.”

Make Dashboards Great Again

If not safety, opponents of screens often claim the old way of doing things was just better or cooler. I call this “car conservatism” – a commitment to traditional values and ideas with opposition to change or innovation. They bemoan the loss of analogue gauges, hydraulic steering, easy-to-work-on engines, and the like. In their worldview, the best car is the simplest one; we should all be driving Morgans instead of Model 3s. 

I don’t want to live in a world of antiseptic automotive appliances either, but so many advancements in automotive tech have contributed a net positive to the driving experience and all it entails that I side with innovation and progress over car conservatism. Anti-lock brakes, adaptive cruise control, torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive – the list of good things is a mile long and growing, and includes screens. 

All About The Benjamins

Screens, for one, are cheaper and less complicated for an automaker to produce than a dashboard of buttons, knobs, and gauges. Sandy Munro, Owner and CEO of Munro & Associates and YouTube’s most famous automotive engineer, agrees. This man disassembles cars down to the nut and bolt and analyzes how much it costs to build them, and in regards to automakers employing more screens in cars, he said, “Yes they are all looking at the savings.” 

He went on, “I am a big fan of screens and not a fan of knobs and dials, which remind me of old aircraft and cars. Knobs always fall off or worse the mechanism in back of them fails. My Morgan Super Sport instrument panel caught on fire because of a switch failure. I have been an advocate for screens ever since.”

Screens also can save automakers money because they’re less costly to maintain. In the same article cited above, Kessler states “Compared to a dashboard full of different buttons, knobs, and screens, a single touch screen is a much more straightforward part to design, spec, and maintain.” It is one component, the screen, with no moving parts compared to dozens if not hundreds of pieces in a traditional dash, many of which are constantly pushed, pulled, and twisted. The component with no moving parts is less likely to break and require a warranty repair than the one with moving parts. 

You Have An Update Waiting

Screens in cars are also upgradeable. Over-the-air updates allow automakers to fix bugs, improve designs, and add totally new features at any time. And most of the time they do this for free! These OTAs turn your infotainment system into something like an iPhone with regular updates that add games, streaming options, design improvements, and new features to your car.

Buttons, knobs, and other physical inputs, however, can’t be upgraded. They are cast in stone at the factory, both in how they work and what they do. Your dash experience is frozen in time with features and technology from the day it was built, never able to improve.

Looks Do Matter

Lastly, I think screens in cars are aesthetically more pleasing than physical buttons. The use of screens makes a sleeker, more elegant interior design compared to a busy wall of buttons.

Likewise, screens are what I imagined the future would look like, and it feels like the future is finally here. Buttons, knobs, and gauges are now quaint to me and reserved for the classic car that gets driven on weekends.

Best And Worst

The interesting thing is that neither side can argue buttons are always better than screens or screens are always better than buttons. There are bad examples of both. On the button side, the first-generation Porsche Panamera sold from 2009-2016 immediately comes to mind. It seemed to set a new high watermark for total number of buttons, with a wall of plastic inputs facing you on both the dash and center console. For a luxury vehicle, it looked neither expensive nor high quality, and it was an absolute pain to navigate. 

Likewise, there are examples of terrible screen integration too. Some automakers have entered an arms race for screens, increasing their number of digital windows seemingly just for bragging rights. Current record holders are cars like the Jeep Grand Wagoneer that offers seven screens: two large one placed atop one another in the center stack, a large screen behind the steering wheel for the gauge cluster, another large screen embedded in the dash facing the front passenger, two large rear-seat entertainment screens, and a heads-up display. At that number, most of the benefits screens offer can be thrown out the window. 

For my money, the best adoption of screen technology in a car interior is the Tesla Model 3 and Model Y. They feature one big screen floating out in front of the middle of the dashboard. For better or worse, it’s become the standard for minimalism in automotive interior design.

I drove a Model 3 for three years and loved the interior design for its restraint and elegance (build quality, aside). I also had no problem using the screen for most inputs because the interface was designed well, particularly the shallow menu structure that puts most controls on the main screen at all times. There are some controls a level or two deeper, but they’re the kind you set once, save to your profile, and forget. And contrary to popular belief, Teslas still use physical controls for the most frequently performed tasks like gear changes, blinker activation, volume control, and more. 

I hope screens continue to be used in new cars, and their implementation, design, and ergonomics continue to evolve and improve. They are a better alternative to the physical controls we’ve lived with since the dawn of autodom in the late 1800s. I know many people will disagree vehemently with that statement, but you know what they say: The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.

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