You don’t see a lot of good news about road safety in the United States. Unlike in most peer countries, American roadway deaths surged during the pandemic and have barely receded since. Pedestrian and cyclist fatalities recently hit their highest levels in 40 years, but U.S. transportation officials continue to ignore key contributing factors. In a February interview with Fast Company, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said that “further research” is needed before addressing the obvious risks that oversized SUVs and trucks pose to those not inside of them.
Happily, there is one area where we are making at least marginal progress: A growing number of automakers are backpedaling away from the huge, complex touch screens that have infested dashboard design over the past 15 years. Buttons and knobs are coming back.
The touch screen pullback is the result of consumer backlash, not the enactment of overdue regulations or an awakening of corporate responsibility. Many drivers want buttons, not screens, and they’ve given carmakers an earful about it. Auto executives have long brushed aside safety concerns about their complex displays—and all signs suggest they would have happily kept doing so. But their customers are revolting, which has forced them to pay attention.
For well over a decade, touch screens have spread like a rash across dashboards. As with other dangerous trends in car design (see the steering yoke), this one can be traced back to Tesla, which has for years positioned its vehicles as “tablets on wheels.” As a result, touch screens were seen as representing tech-infused modernity. But cost has been a factor, too. “These screens are presented as this avant garde, minimalist design,” said Matt Farah, a car reviewer and host of The Smoking Tire, an auto-focused YouTube channel and podcast. “But really, it’s the cheapest way possible of building an interior.” Although they look fancy, Farah said that carmakers can purchase screens for less than $50, making them significantly less expensive than tactile controls.
As I explained in a 2021 Slate article, the trend toward car touch screens has been a dangerous one for road safety. Those who drove in the 1990s will remember using buttons and knobs to change the radio or adjust the air conditioning without looking down from the steering wheel. Despite their name, touch screens rely on a driver’s eyes as much as her fingers to navigate—and every second that she is looking at a screen is a second that she isn’t looking at the road ahead. Navigating through various levels of menus to reach a desired control can be particularly dangerous; one study by the AAA Foundation concluded that infotainment touch screens can distract a driver for up to 40 seconds, long enough to cover half a mile at 50 mph.
“The irony is that everyone basically accepts that it’s dangerous to use your phone while driving,” said Farah. “Yet no one complains about what we’re doing instead, which is fundamentally using an iPad while driving. If you’re paying between $40,000 and $300,000 for a car, you’re getting an iPad built onto the dashboard.”
Seeking to address these risks, NHTSA published voluntary guidance in 2013 recommending that a driver be able to complete any infotainment task with glances of under two seconds, totaling a maximum of 12 seconds. But NHTSA’s guidance had no enforcement mechanism, and carmakers have violated it with impunity.
In the last two years further evidence has suggested that touch screens represent a step backward for auto design. Drexel researchers found that infotainment systems posed a statistically significant crash risk even in the early 2010s, before carmakers added many of today’s bells and whistles. A widely publicized Swedish study found that completing tasks with screens takes longer than with physical buttons.
Meanwhile, a revolt has been brewing. A recent J.D. Power consumer survey on vehicle dependability concluded that “infotainment remains a significant issue for new vehicles.” It wasn’t hard to understand why. In a 2022 New York Times opinion piece titled “Touch Screens in Cars Solve a Problem We Didn’t Have,” Jay Caspian Kang wrote, “I can think of no better way of describing the frustration of the modern consumer than buying a car with a feature that makes you less safe, doesn’t improve your driving experience in any meaningful way, saves the manufacturer money and gets sold to you as some necessary advance in connectivity.”
Other stories railing against car touch screens ran in newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and tech sites like Tom’s Guide, which declared, “I’m sorry, but touchscreens in cars are stupid.”
Carmakers have noticed—and they’ve begun to change their tune. Given the higher costs of using physical controls, it’s unsurprising that Porsche has been at the vanguard, returning buttons to the interior of the 2024 Cayenne. (Bugatti, meanwhile, never adopted touch screens in the first place.) “One would hope that luxury trickles down,” said Farah. “As they reject the screens, it could over time be seen as luxurious to have buttons instead.”
Volkswagen, which owns Porsche, has acknowledged that customer feedback led it to drop its much-loathed steering wheel touch controls that were nearly impossible to use without looking down from the windshield, and executives have suggested adding more buttons to its future EVs.
Meanwhile, the few big automakers that skipped the touch screen craze have not been shy about letting the world know—while offering a few digs at their competitors. “I think people are going to get tired of these big black screens,” Alfonso Albaisa, Nissan’s senior VP for global design, told Green Car Reports. Hyundai, too, has voiced its commitment to buttons and dials.
With automakers backing away from a trend that has contributed to the U.S.’s sky-high levels of crash deaths, you might expect the federal government to offer a tailwind, perhaps with new regulations or at least by publicly congratulating the carmakers that are adopting safer interior designs. But NHTSA has stayed mum. Asked about any new programs or approaches, the agency said in an email that “Distraction-affected crashes are a concern, particularly in vehicles equipped with an array of convenience technologies such as entertainment screens and other visual displays.”
While much of the recent infotainment news has been positive, that’s not true for all of it. Some automakers seem to be doubling down on their commitment to screens; the new Mercedes 2024 E-Class will come with up to three of them. Even more troubling was General Motors’ recent announcement that its future models would be incompatible with widely used Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, instead requiring owners to navigate a new infotainment interface. As a result, those accustomed to CarPlay or Android Auto will need to ascend a learning curve when they buy a new car, borrow a friend’s vehicle, or get a rental. Learning curves and car safety do not mix well.
Still, automakers like Nissan and Hyundai deserve praise for standing against a Tesla-fueled trend that has made driving more dangerous. And Volkswagen should get at least partial credit for belatedly seeing the light, even if it was a consumer backlash that forced them there.
The invisible hand has done road safety few favors; carmakers’ inability to profit from protecting those outside of the cars is a big reason they shrug off the danger they create for pedestrians and cyclists. But with touch screens, at least, market forces seem to be helping to make U.S. roadways a bit less deadly.