Cars manufacturers like Volkswagen are ditching the touchscreen for buttons

Volkswagen has resigned from the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industry's policymaking committee.

Volkswagen has resigned from the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industry's policymaking committee. Photo: AP

Volkswagen (VW) is joining other car manufacturers in bringing back physical buttons and dials in vehicles, although consumers can expect that touchscreen displays won’t totally disappear.

VW CEO Thomas Schafer recently said the change to touchscreen displays and removing physical buttons in their vehicles – like Tesla has done – “did a lot of damage” to the company’s brand, and newer vehicles will embrace atavistic design principles.

Andreas Mindt, VW’s design lead, told Autocar that future vehicles will have a “stable and likeable design”.

“Customers say a pure touchscreen is not enough and they expect physical switches and dials for important functions,” he said.

volkswagen beetle

Volkswagen’s head of design said the newer designs will be inspired by classic vehicles. Photo: Getty

Safety issues

Touchscreens in vehicles are a relatively new trend and their implementation coincided with the rise of smartphones, but studies have highlighted the safety risk of the technology.

A study from Sweden found older vehicles with buttons instead of a touchscreen were easier to use while travelling at speed, particularly when compared to vehicles with touchscreens that aren’t backlit.

The study’s authors highlighted that it was unlikely to change anytime soon, as automotive makers want their vehicles to be viewed as tech items.

Tesla has promoted its vehicles as a ‘touchscreen on wheels,’ and the everlasting march of advancement has led to larger and more pervasive screens in vehicles, which in turn has created further safety issues.

The AAA Foundation’s analysis discovered just 40 seconds of distraction while fiddling with a destination, infotainment or music leads to slower reaction times, and the US government blames distraction for about 10 per cent of annual traffic fatalities.

According to one study, the risk only increased for older drivers, who removed their eyes and attention from the roads for eight seconds longer than younger drivers.

“This is a design problem, not an age problem,” AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy Jake Nelson said at the time.

“Designing systems to meet the safety and comfort needs of ageing drivers would benefit all of us today, and for years to come.”

The future

Matt Farah, a car reviewer, told Slate that while touchscreens are promoted as avant garde and a hallmark of minimalist design, in reality, they are the cheapest way to build an interior.

“The irony is that everyone basically accepts that it’s dangerous to use your phone while driving,” he said.

“Yet no one complains about what we’re doing instead, which is fundamentally using an iPad while driving.

“If you’re paying between $40,000 and $300,000 for a car, you’re getting an iPad built onto the dashboard.”

Volkswagen isn’t the only car manufacturer to start feeling out a return to buttons, although it is unlikely to become universal like it was in the past.

Porsche’s 2024 Cayenne luxury SUV is phasing out a touchscreen design and adding buttons back but still features a central screen in the vehicle.

At the launch of Hyundai Kona earlier this year, Hyundai’s head of design said new models are deliberately using buttons and dials for controls like hazard warnings and breaks because of safety concerns.

“For me, the safety-related buttons have to be a hard key,” Sang Yup Lee said.

“When you’re driving it’s hard to control it. This is why when it’s a hard key it’s easy to sense and feel it.”

Hyundai recall

Hyundai has adopted a hybrid approach in newer designs. Photo: Getty

He did, however, highlight that as cars become more autonomous – and potentially self-driving – physical dials and buttons are likely to be scaled back.

Nissan has implemented a fusion between analog and digital in some of its designs, where interfaces remain fixed in place for sound and air-conditioning.

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