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Infotainment overload: The rush to kill buttons (and why that is a bad thing)

Touchscreen controls are all the rage, darling, but have we reached a point where the infotainment space race is affecting safety and making life more hassle?

Technology for technology’s sake. That’s what my mum and dad used to bang on about when I tried to convince them I needed a personal computer (to play Command & Conquer, obviously). “What is wrong with a pen and paper?” was the usual response.

They had a point. I managed to get through my education without using Microsoft Word or the Internet. Except now my parents have iPhones, laptops, tablets, in-car Bluetooth and know how to send an emoji. Even the odd GIF. It was a slow process, but technology has enriched their lives and I highly doubt they would want to go back to faxing documents – even if they were paid.

When done well, technology is brilliant. It makes the perfect coffee, ensures your car is warm before you get into it and enriches lives. It stops the back end of the 602bhp Audi R8 V10 Plus Spyder from killing you when you stamp on the accelerator in snow and it gets you from A to B while avoiding traffic. It can even ring the emergency services for you when you are unconscious.

But it can also hamper progress, particularly when used as a party trick – the sort employed by almost all car manufacturers to keep up with their competitors and help their vehicles stand out. Apple CarPlay this, Android Auto that. Even though neither are that great (the former feels like it was designed by a disgruntled intern), their presence takes centre stage in the annoucement of a new car.

With increasingly tight margins, the uncertainty of Brexit, scaremongering around diesel and other factors, you can understand why Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Peugeot, Vauxhall et al have made infotainment a focus. For a relatively small price, it can make a big difference to the effect a car has on you.

Then there is the fact that adding a computer (and, in more and more cases, a SIM-card) provides manufacturers with potentially lucrative information. Like how often you visit your mistress, or use a McDonald’s drive-thru because you cannot be bothered to cook. Who needs a customer survey when Dave from IT can see, plain as day, exactly how often you drive and where?

As Henry Ford once said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” In that sense, customers are obviously going to want more for less. Who would turn down a flashy touchscreen that shows you cornering G-forces? No one, that’s who. But the reality is that perhaps they should.

It would be unfair to single out any particular manufacturer, but you know there is a problem when Volvo – a manufacturer renowned for its safety and so proud of its heritage that it sews a little Swedish flag onto the seats – has created a touchscreen that makes changing the ambient temperature as challenging as threading wet spaghetti through a needle.

In the case of its latest offerings, you need to ensure you are on the middle of three display pages, then press the temperature icon and then adjust a slider with your finger. Hardly rocket science, admittedly, but then the slider button is so ridiculously small you need to have taken diazepam to keep your hand steady enough to operate it.

By the time you have made your car slightly warmer, your eyes have been off the road for seconds. At motorway speeds, you have covered the length of a football pitch, probably more. Whatever has ended up in your path is now completely flat.

As any motorist who has driven into the back of another car because they sneezed or because their prescription drugs had slowed down their reaction times will attest, a lot can happen in the blink of an eye. Working your way though your extensive music collection so you can find Enya’s Paint the Sky with Stars can only have a detrimental effect on your ability to react.

Some cars do, of course, require you to be stationary for certain functions and it’s a reasonable solution, but usually this is limited only to connecting your phone to Bluetooth – assuming the manufacturer has bothered to implement it at all.

Listing ‘physical buttons’ in the brochure is, of course, much less exciting than boasting in inches (no giggling) about how big your TFT display is, but those tactile bits of plastic are still the safest way to control an element of your car. No ifs, no buts.

Think about it: You can use muscle memory to locate where the heater is and once you have found it all you have to do is twist, pull, slide or push to operate the mechanism. There is no need to take your eyes off the road and, unlike with gesture control in, say, a BMW, you can avoid looking annoyingly pretentious in the process.

Buttons negate the need for overly complicated user-interfaces that take decades to fathom. By the time I had found out how to mute the navigation instructions in the new Nissan Micra, I had grown a beard and a letter about claiming my pension had dropped through the letterbox. 

They can also be made from deliciously smooth carbon fibre, cut into any shape you care to imagine and, because of their compact size, put wherever you want them. Some cars, such as the latest Ford Mustang, can actually benefit from their quirky design.

Touchscreens are, of course, nothing new, but it was Tesla and its mammoth 17-inch display that got the ball rolling fastest. In the original Model S, there were just two physical buttons, one of which was for the hazard lights. Many of us motoring journalists inevitably raved about it, which no doubt caused other manufacturers to crave some of the attention.

In fairness, Tesla’s infotainment system was and is still the best going in terms of functionality and clarity, but is it really worth tempting drivers with a quick Google search on their boring, traffic-laden commute to work?

Some of you may be saying (quite rightfully) that my opinion sounds like that of an 80-year-old who struggles to swipe left on an iPad, but I find safety meetings and the 50mph speed limit on a motorway just as tedious as you do. Technological progress has allowed me to watch Stranger Things in 4K and stream all the music I could ever want without having to set foot in HMV. The thought of winding back a tape is painful at best.

You could also argue that it is up to the driver to take responsibility for their actions and this is perhaps the strongest argument. There is already enough hand-holding in modern society without banning a touchscreen because Jim from Leicester was trying to turn on the heated seat before he ploughed into the back of a minibus. The cost of freedom can be high, unfortunately.

But some people really should never go near a car, let alone one that comes jam-packed with 21st-century distractions. The overly nervous driver, the driver who has to check Facebook when on a busy A-road, the driver who is aggressive and hangs about an inch behind your bumper because they always leave late – these bad eggs really do help push up your insurance premium every year. Maybe manufacturers have a responsibility to enforce sense on the senseless.

Autonomous technologies such as automatic braking and lane-keep assist could, of course, save the day (assuming they work properly), but that only helps those who buy a new car. And as someone who takes great pleasure in driving, the idea of turning cars into mini trains is as appealing as gout.

Distracted driving is a big enough problem for the UK government to have clamped down on mobile phone use (hello, six-point penalty) and driving under the influence has also had its fair share of the limelight. But what about driving under the influence of technology?

Luckily for everyone involved, ergonomics and safety converge nicely because, as someone once said, good design is unnoticeable. It is the upward movement of the indicator stalk, the clockwise twist of the volume button, the rotation of the needle on a speedometer. None of these things would ever keep you up at night as you marvel at their genius, but their absence would be jarring.

In the same way, a simple to use, elegant touchscreen user-interface not only has the potential to look great, it lets the driver focus on the road ahead – as it should. Delivered thoughtfully, the impact on a driver could be minimal at worst and there would be no need to forgo the ability to find an open petrol station at 4am on a rainy night in Stoke.

Maybe infotainment distraction will become a bigger talking point in 2018, maybe nobody will care. But I can only hope good-old fashioned buttons become trendy again because they were never broken in the first place. There is something satisfying about the craftsmanship that goes into designing a tactile object. The feel, the ergonomics, the way it moves, the weighting, the colour, the location ─ these seemingly inane details matter.

Anyone of sane mind would, for instance, take the lovingly designed and unique interior of a TVR Sagaris over virtually all plastic-riddled modern-day cars. Even if it would fall apart in your hand the moment you touch it.

Some of us ‘fuddy duddys’ rather like those all-too-rare and brief moments where we can avoid looking at our emails. Driving is one of them, but if manufacturers have their way, ​​​​​​working on the way to work whilst our cars take care of the driving is a terrifyingly tangible possibility.

I’ll happily adopt the safety elements of modern-day technology if it means saving lives, but maybe the safest thing manufacturers could do right now is dial infotainment back a notch. Using a physical dial, that is.


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