Too many screens? Why car safety experts want to bring back buttons

Over the past two decades, iPad-like touch screens in cars have evolved from a niche luxury to a pervasive industry standard. These often sleek, minimalist, in-car control panels offer drivers a plethora of features and customization. However, previous studies suggest these every-day conveniences may come at cost: more distracted drivers. Though regulators have spoken critically of in-car screens in the past, a prominent European safety monitor is going a step further and requiring physical buttons and knobs for certain commonly used driving features if car makers want to receive a top safety score.

Starting in 2026, according to The Sunday Times, the European New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) will only award its top safety rating to new vehicles that use old-fashioned buttons and levers to activate indicators, hazard lights, and other critical driving features. The new requirements could force automakers who use the safety rating as a selling point to reassess the amount of driving features they make accessible only through touch screens. Though these voluntary standards are limited to Europe, a battle over buttons is gaining momentum among drivers in the US as well. 

Euro NCAP Director of Strategic Development Matthew Avery described the influx of potentially distracting in-car screens an “industry-wide problem” during  an interview with The Sunday Times.

“New Euro NCAP tests due in 2026 will encourage manufacturers to use separate, physical controls for basic functions in an intuitive manner, limiting eyes-off-road time and therefore promoting safer driving,” he said.

What happened to all of the buttons and knobs?

Touch screens are ubiquitous in new cars. A recent S&P Global Mobility survey of  global car owners cited by Bloomberg estimates nearly all (97%) of new cars released after 2023 have at least one touch screen nestled in the cabin. Nearly 25% of US cars and trucks currently on the road reportedly have a screen at least 11 inches long according to that same survey. These “infotainment systems,” once largely reserved for leisure activity like switching between Spotify songs or making phone calls, are increasingly being used for a variety of tasks essential to driving, like flashing lights or signaling for a turn. Consumer Reports, which regularly asks drivers about their driving experience,  claims only around half of drivers it surveyed in 2022 reported being “very satisfied” with the infotainment system in their vehicles. 

[ Related: The 2024 Lincoln Nautilus has a 48-inch panoramic ‘infotainment’ screen ]

“Common tasks that drivers used to accomplish with the simple press of a button or turn of a knob now require navigating through multiple screens, which means more steps, more time, and more attention,” Consumer Reports Auto Test Center Manager for Vehicle Technology Kelly Funkhouser said in a recent blog post.  

There’s various reasons contributing to carmakers’ embrace of touch screens. For starters, the digitized design frees up space in the cabin that would otherwise be cluttered by an assortment of buttons. The tablet-like interface many new models use means drivers can access more intricate features than before, some of which carmakers could use as selling points to distinguish themselves from competitors. Maybe more importantly, the seemingly higher-tech touch screens actually reportedly cost less for carmakers to manufacture at scale than analogue alternatives. 

Digitizing more elements of the vehicle experience also means some carmakers can fix bugs or ship new features through over-the-air, internet updates, which can save drivers a visit to a repair shop. Looking to the future, marketers have also expressed interest in using in-car screens to serve revenue-generating advertising, especially as driver-assistances and autonomous driving features mature. 

Safety concerns tied in-car touch screens 

Touch screen critics warn increasingly complex infotainment systems pose potential safety concerns. A 2017 report from the AAA Foundation claims drivers using infotainment systems to complete tasks like typing in navigation destinations or sending a text were visually and mentally distracted for around 40 seconds. That’s potentially a cause for concern, particularly in light of previous research from Virginia Tech which estimates drivers who look away from the road for more than two consecutive seconds are more than two times as likely to  get into a near-crash. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said distracted driving, which can include looking at screens, accounted for 8% of all US traffic fatalities in 2021. 

NCAP’s new European safety requirements announced this week attempt to address these issues by making physical controls a requirement for any vehicle vying to obtain its highest five star safety rating. The guidelines, which take effect in 2026, will require physical controls for indicators, windshield wipers, hazard lights, the horn, or for activating an emergency SOS feature. These requirements aren’t legally required since the NCAP isn’t a government body but they can still serve as a motivator for prominent automakers like BMW and Volvo who use the NCAP safety rating to tout their safety priorities to potential buyers. 

“We’re working with manufacturers to encourage the safest cars to Bring Back Buttons,” Avery of the NCAP wrote on LinkedIn this week. “Distraction crashes are in the increase [sic] and big touch screens encouraged [sic] distracted driving.”

‘Screen fatigue’ leaves carmakers at a crossroad 

The NCAP requirements come at an inflection point for carmakers, with some investing in larger, more complex screens and others appearing to take a step back. On the screen-maximalist side, Ford and Mercedes-Benz have shipped vehicles with immense “hyperscreen” digital displays stretching 48’ and 56’ respectively. Mercedes and Tesla have both been forced to end over the air updates following rare cases where drivers were reportedly able to watch TV and even play video games on the screens while the vehicles were in motion. 

At the same time, other carmakers like Hyundai and Nissan have responded to possible “screen fatigue” among some consumers by reiterating their commitment to analogue style buttons and knobs. Hyundai Head of Design Sang Yup Lee, for example, recently said the company chose to focus on physical controls to adjust air conditioning and the radio in recent modes. Nissan has recently opted for a mix of smaller screens, physical controls, and haptic feedback. 

Those could be welcome decisions for a significant portion of consumers who are unsatisfied with the drift towards more and more screens. J.D. Power, which recently surveyed drivers about their infotainment systems called the increasingly complex touch screen systems deployed by some carmakers a “prime example of a technology not resonating with today’s buyers.”

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