Drivers prefer buttons to ‘distracting’ touchscreens

Touchscreen in car
Touchscreen in car

Drivers prefer cars that have physical buttons and switches for operating the controls instead of touchscreens, a study has found.

Almost nine in 10 motorists said they preferred driving a car with buttons instead of screens, saying buttons were safer because they did not have to take their eyes off the road.

The study, by What Car magazine, also found that 60 per cent of prospective buyers would be deterred from buying a new vehicle with touchscreen controls instead of physical ones.

Claire Evans, the magazine’s consumer editor, said: “The key to providing the easiest-to-use, least distracting infotainment and air-con systems is to offer drivers plenty of control options. The very best systems give drivers a number of ways of accessing frequently used functions.

“In contrast, the touchscreen operation of infotainment systems is especially distracting if they are slow to respond or hide frequently used functions in sub-menus that are fiddly and time-consuming to navigate.”

Mimic mobile phones and tablets

Infotainment systems typically use a centrally mounted touchscreen to let the driver and front seat passenger set the car’s sat nav and radio, together with other functions such as air conditioning and displaying reversing cameras.

Car makers are increasingly incorporating more controls into these touchscreens, partly to mimic mobile phones and tablets, and partly as a way of reducing costs.

Concern is growing over removal of physical controls from cars that can be operated without taking one’s eyes off the road.

Statistics from the Department for Transport show that driver distraction was a contributing factor in 29 per cent of all road deaths in 2022, up from 23 per cent in 2013.

Euro NCAP, the automotive industry safety body, is changing its car test criteria to reward car manufacturers for using conventional buttons.

Under new NCAP rules being introduced in 2026, cars seeking the highest safety rating of five stars must use buttons, stalks or dials for five main tasks: turning on the indicators; activating the hazard lights; sounding the horn; operating windscreen wipers; and activating the EU-mandated SOS function, which calls emergency services to the car’s location in the event of a crash.

Vi Bilägare, A Swedish car magazine, found in a series of tests carried out last year that drivers took up to 30 seconds longer to carry out driving-related tasks in touchscreen cars as they did in cars with traditional buttons and levers.

Fredrik Diits Vikstroem, a reporter for the magazine, wrote: “Inspiration for the screen-heavy interiors in modern cars comes from smartphones and tablets. Designers want a ‘clean’ interior with minimal switchgear, and the financial department wants to lower the cost.

“Instead of developing, manufacturing and keeping physical buttons in stock for years to come, car manufacturers are keen on integrating more functions into a digital screen which can be updated over time.”