Debate rages on over the need for physical buttons in our cars

Innovation for innovation’s sake or sleek and stylish modern design? There are very few things in our cars that can cause as much debate as the noble button.

For years, a mainstay in our cabins, controlling our heating, climate control and volume. A timeless design that never truly felt in danger during the modern era.

How wrong we were. Over the past decade, the physical button has become more of a novelty, with manufacturers opting for a sleeker, minimalist design.

As technology and engineering has evolved, manufacturers have been able to force many of those same controls through a touchscreen or voice command functionality.

Comparisons can be drawn with the decline of physical buttons and the rise of Tesla, who have become something of a pioneer in modern cars.

Very few lease cars before them came as stripped back as the likes of the Model 3 and Model Y interiors – to the love of some and the disdain of others.

The refined nature of the Tesla line up is certainly part of the appeal and as the world’s best-selling EV in 2022, the Model Y must be doing something right.

However, not everyone is pleased with the lack of buttons. One funding campaign raised nearly £80,000 from over 350 backers to create the Ctrl-Bar product, which would see a control bar retrofitted below the touchscreen.

Of course, old habits die hard. As a society, we know what we like and don’t truly appreciate the value of something until it's gone.

As consumer demand highlights an apparent desire to reinstate the button, we’re digging deeper to understand why they’re becoming less important for the manufacturer and the reasons for their decline.

Touchscreen in the Volvo XC40

Are there positives from having fewer buttons?

We’re surrounded the rise of AI and automation in so many aspects of our lives (don’t worry, a chat bot didn’t write that). We have become so accustomed to having some form of voice command at our fingertips.

In our homes, there’s every chance you’ve used Alexa to turn off the lights or Siri to make a call on your iPhone. Offering such hands free convenience in our cars is a natural evolution of this and in theory, makes sense from the manufacturer’s point of view, given the immense success of similar products.

So many leading manufacturers offer voice control, from the well-rounded MBUX system available in Mercedes cars, as well as several Ford, Vauxhall and MINI models of recent years. It has not been something exclusive to premium makes or models and coincides with the surge in demand for Apple CarPlay.

Research has shown that having a car that supports Apple CarPlay is one of the most highly sought after requests from consumers, and with the ability access Siri from your car, you’re guaranteed some level of voice control in your next car lease.

There is also the styling aspect to consider. Less can be more and the rise of Tesla has inspired so many manufacturers to follow suit.

The Polestar 2 has taken a similar approach to the Model 3, but does retain a handful of infotainment buttons.

So much emphasis is now placed on the touchscreen functionality. From the height of luxury in the Mercedes-Benz S-Class, to the wide range of screens available in the Honda e, it is a sign of the times that brand new cars are filled with these powerful screens.

Tesla Model 3 interior

Defending the button

One must assume that technological advancements have come with good intentions.

Touchscreens are often positioned much higher than buttons, closer to the driver’s eye line.

In theory, reducing the time you spend looking away from the road with a hand off the steering wheel should be viewed as a positive step that encourages safer driving.

In practice, it doesn’t always work as well as that. In-car infotainment systems all have their traits, and some can be easier to use than others. It is in those that have been poorly designed for the user where the problems become apparent.

When basic functions like climate control and heating can get lost within menus of menus, it can quickly become difficult to navigate while driving.

What was designed to limit the attention taken off the road can often take longer, become more frustrating and harder to use.

In 2022, Swedish outlet Vi Bilägare carried out a study that suggested it took up to four times longer to perform several basic tasks when using a touchscreen in favour of a physical button.

Testing 12 different cars, drivers were asked to perform tasks such as turning on the heated seats or tuning the radio while driving at 70mph.

Some of the cars tested included the Tesla Model 3, Mercedes-Benz GLB and the BMW iX among others. The benchmark? A 2005 Volvo V70 – a model that had more buttons than you can dream of.

BMW iX interior compared to Volvo C30

Pictured: BMW iX interior compared to a 2006 Volvo C30 - a cabin with a similar number of physical buttons to the 2005 V70 tested

With all the drivers familiar with their vehicle, they were tested to see the time and distance required to complete the four tasks and the level of concentration required.

It wasn't a surprise to see the V70 thrive, completing all four tasks in 10 seconds flat. It took 23.5s in the Model 3 and 30.4s in the BMW iX. The worst-performing model – the MG Marvel R, clocked in at a staggering 44.9 seconds. 

Not yet available in the UK, this flagship SUV features a 19.4inch touchscreen that looks reminiscent of what is available in popular Volvo models, or the Ford Mustang Mach-e.

MG Marvel R

Pictured: The MG Marvel R currently sold in Europe that features a 19.4-inch touchscreen

The findings that are most concerning are the combination of the time and distance required, but also the level of concentration the driver was required to take off the road to complete simple routine tasks that would’ve otherwise been completed through nothing more than muscle memory with a button.

Some drivers were required to lower their line of sight by 60 degrees to see the lower region of the touchscreen.

What’s the solution?

If these tests and theories have highlighted one clear problem, it is the lack of focus on user experience.

The advancements of our technology and engineering are so vast that it makes complete sense that the physical button has been highlighted as something no longer required.

However, more consideration has to be taken when designing how to use what are pretty basic functions while driving.

BMW strike a fine balance in many of their models, combining the use of motion gesture controls, voice control, shortcut buttons, a rotary dial and their touchscreen. Previous generations of the iDrive system have wowed, with the German manufacturer cementing their place as one of the industry leaders in this area.

Touchscreens are by no means a bad addition to our modern vehicles, far from it. They serve a purpose – for things like navigation they make perfect sense. However, there are multiple instances where substance must supersede style. 

As we move into a new era of electrified and high-tech driving, it is important we find balance between functionality and technology.  

Are you a touchscreen or button kind of person?

Ryan Darby

Ryan Darby

Ryan takes the lead on all things 'wordy'. With a sports media background, a true passion for cars, and a LOT of driving experience under his belt, he'll make sure you have all the information you need, when you need it.