Yes, even designers outside the automotive industry think physical buttons deserve a second chance.
With each button, stalk, and elegant analog gauge that gets removed from new car interiors, an increasingly large touchscreen or digital interface replaces it. Not only is it creating increasingly clinical car interiors, but multiple studies have proven that touchscreens are more distracting.
There's increasing pushback coming both from within and beyond the automotive industry about these screens. French design boss Thierry Metroz called touchscreens stupid, and a BMW designer echoed these sentiments, albeit in a more Germanic, businesslike style.
Joining the chorus of touchscreen naysayers is former Apple designer Jony Ive who thinks that multi-touch interfaces have gone too far and that it's a good time to shift back to some physical controls. This feedback is telling from someone who initially pursued a career in design because of his teenage love of cars.
Ive was speaking at Vox Media's Code conference with a panel that included former Apple design lead Tim Cook when he made the statements about touch-sensitive interfaces.
"Potentially, the pendulum may swing a little to have interfaces and products that are more tactile and more engaging physically," he said. Journalist Kara Swisher asked if he was referring to cars, and Ive responded by saying, "for example." This suggests that he thinks smartphones could return to physical buttons too.
While some companies use haptic feedback in an attempt to create a more intuitive experience when interacting with these digital interfaces, we have often found that there is simply no replacement for physical buttons and knobs - especially for regularly used features like the volume and ventilation controls.
Not all touchscreens are bad, of course. BMW's iDrive 7 interface, Volvo's Android-based system, and the Uconnect system from Stellantis all made our list of the seven best infotainment systems. All of these systems use touchscreens but still provide physical controls to operate some vehicle functions. This combination is ideal as the physical controls are best for often-used functions, while the touchscreen works well when delving deeper into vehicle settings that won't constantly be changed.
Considering that Ive comes from a background at Apple where both form and function tend to exist in harmony - and where simplicity is prized - it's no surprise that he feels a more tactile interface is needed. Interestingly, Ive was asked how he would design a car in what was likely a cheeky, veiled reference to the promised Apple car, but the designer declined to comment on that.
Mazda is one of the very few automakers that has openly shunned touchscreens in the interests of friendlier ergonomics, and if you're driven a Mazda CX-30 or similar lately and experienced how easy it is to interact with the car, you'll understand why. This Mazda has an 8.8-inch display nestled high up on the dash and fairly far away from the driver. It doesn't dominate the cabin but complements the various other controls. A few years ago, this 8.8-inch display was considered a well-sized screen. Today, it ranks as pint-sized alongside Merc's 56-inch MBUX Hyperscreen or Lucid's 34-inch glass cockpit.
As new technologies like over-the-air updates, driver-assistance features, and subscription-based technologies begin to dominate the driving experience, we understand why touchscreens are more adaptable in connected cars that can be improved over time. But as Ive and other designers have recently remarked, it's time to consider a better balance between old and new to create the best - and safest - user experience.