Where Have All the Buttons Gone?

Safety experts in Europe are calling for the return of physical controls, calling touchscreens a safety hazard. Should US regulators follow suit?

The Hardest Button to Button

Jack White might have been singing about shirt buttons, but he could as easily have been referring to the lack of buttons in today’s cars wherein the hardest button to button is the button that doesn’t exist. The Great Touchscreen Integration has accomplished three things: made our dashboards a little less cluttered, reduced overhead for carmakers who save money by incorporating less physical hardware, and made us less safe on the road.

Tesla has led the charge in the elimination of buttons, creating the most starkly unadorned interiors in the industry. But Tesla is far from the only offender. Carmakers have rapidly followed Tesla’s lead on the elimination of physical controls, choosing to house more and more of them in an all-encompassing, ever-expanding touchscreen. Cars like the Volvo EX30, Rivian R1T, and practically all new Mercedes-Benz have eschewed buttons in favor of touchscreen interfaces.

The Promise and Problems of Touchscreens

2022 Tesla Model S - carsforsale.com

The path to touchscreen ubiquity has been long and for the most part a logical progression. Digital screens for navigation and rearview cameras are now decades old. As technology has advanced and hardware costs have come down, carmakers began integrating more controls into digital touchscreens. We can safely say as of 2024 the industry has jumped the shark on touchscreens. Tesla uses theirs for everything from vent direction to gear selection. Mercedes’ dash-spanning mega-screen couldn’t get much bigger without taking over the windshield (oh, wait, their head-ups display already does this…).

So, what’s wrong with carmakers saving a few bucks on buttons or wowing customers with gigantic, dazzling touchscreens that light up like a pachinko machine on tilt? Easy, they’re a major distraction for drivers. You know that annoying safety warning that comes up on-screen every time you start your car? That’s carmakers’ tacit acknowledgement that the technology they’ve put in their cars isn’t exactly safe.

Touchscreens are a bit of a misnomer. A more accurate naming would call them look-and-touchscreens because the lack of any tactile feedback from a smooth glass surface means drivers need to look at their “touchscreen” and therefore take their eyes off the road. If driving and texting is dangerously distracting how is a touchscreen going to be much less distracting, especially when they house common on-the-go controls like those to the HVAC or stereo?

NCAP Calls for the Return of Buttons

2022 Mercedes-Benz S Class - carsforsale.com

The European New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) is Europe’s equivalent of the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) which grades new vehicles’ safety. NCAP has recently said they are going to penalize new vehicles that lack easy to access buttons for key safety features. Features like signals, horns, emergency/SOS, wipers, and hazards would all need to be buttons controlled for a new vehicle to receive NCAP’s top safety score starting in 2026.

NCAP’s call for the return of buttons may not even go far enough to alleviate the scrouge of the touchscreen. In addition to the basics NCAP outlined, we could add other controls like the gear selector, emergency brake, truck release, glovebox, HVAC, and stereo.

More Buttons = Greater Safety?

Tesla Model-S - tesla.com

While a call for greater regulation is often an act of self-immolation in today’s discourse, pause, dear reader and consider what we already require of carmakers. Features like a rearview camera, three-point seat belts, airbags, and decent head and taillights are all mandated for the sake of safety. So why not require actual buttons in the cabin to reduce driver distraction?

Correlation is not causation, but the rise of cell phone use and the ubiquity of in-car touchscreens have coincided with a major uptick in road deaths in the US starting roughly in 2015, with the danger most pronounced for pedestrians. Indeed, 2021 marked a 40-year high for pedestrian fatalities.

Some car companies, like Volkswagen, Porsche, Hyundai, and Nissan, are already shifting back toward buttons, even in the absence of a regulatory push, simply because car buyers are sick of touchscreens. Drivers know that even the quickest and most intuitively designed touchscreen interfaces are distracting to use. Mazda, for one, has long and quite wisely made use of a rotary dial control for their infotainment systems and their cars have been all the safer for it.

As the market adjusts to the emerging reality of distracting touchscreens, let’s hope US regulators catch wind of NCAP’s clarion call and give carmakers the nudge they need to give us our buttons back.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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