Touchscreens seemed cutting-edge when they started popping up in luxury cars way back when. They became a sign of a premium vehicle, and so moderately nice cars had to have them, too. Then they became a necessity, and it seemed like every car on the market was turfing buttons to just use touch controls. Now our cars suck and have unusable interiors unless you pull over to see what you’re doing. But whose fault is this?
One commenter on The Autopian’s Instagram put forth a bold theory. On a post where our own Matt Hardigree pontificated on the Range Rover, Gray McCraw suggested a prime cause for touchscreens taking over the car world. “I blame our present touch screen hellscape on the auto journalists who mocked the 958 Cayenne’s abundance of buttons,” said McCraw. Whoa.
But whoa, sidebar—what’s the problem! Touchscreens… they’re great, right? You see a thing, you touch it, it responds! And yet. Here’s the thing about touchscreens. They’re intuitive! That’s a lovely feature for something you use once that you’ve never seen before. They’re perfect for zoo kiosks or checking in at the airport. In contrast, they’re horrible for controlling something you need to use without looking at it. When we’re driving our cars, we’re supposed to be keeping our eyes on the road. Properly-engineered controls for things like air conditioning or the stereo allow us to use them by touch. You can feel your way to the right button, and feel it respond as you press it in. You can do all this without looking, making it a safer interface for the driver to use. Yes, there’s a learning curve, but beyond rental cars, that… really doesn’t matter in the slightest. It takes like a week to build the muscle memory at most, then you’re golden.
Okay, so back to Gary’s thing. He suggests that we all dissed the Porsche Cayenne, the 958 model specifically, for having too many buttons. This then pushed a number of automakers to dump buttons for touch controls with no physical feedback, and we all got mad. Oh, and I’m using the royal we here, to refer to automotive journalists. Because we’re very important indeed.
So, was that a thing…? Well, I did the research, best I could. I checked out a ton of reviews, all for the 958 Porsche Cayenne, which dropped for the 2010 model year. The Guardian, Car & Driver, Edmunds, Car & Driver again, CarsGuide, US News, RAC, Business Insider, Top Gear… nope. Not a one complains about the buttons. Heck, most of them don’t even mention them at all. For a generous read, I looked for commentary on switches as well, in case someone was speaking arcanely, but no. Not a thing.
Did the honorable Matt Hardigree demand I pen a lengthy article just to say “Hey, Gary. Don’t reckon that’s the case mate, yeah?” Was this a wild goose chase? Did he not realise that managing the Instagram account was somebody else’s job? No matter, I dug deeper. One mustn’t upset the Hardigree.
[Ed Note: The best thing about having a really smart writer in Australia is that I can just send him a screenshot at 1 am when I find it and wake up a few hours later and there’s a whole damn article. Honestly, a little disappointed that touchscreen weren’t the fault of 2010s automotive journalists. – MH]
There are some comments out there against buttons in the Cayenne, but few about the 958. Indeed, misdirected quotes on some websites quote Edmunds or Consumer Reports as disliking the number of small buttons, particularly around the infotainment system. Specifically:
Sadly, this means that the climate and audio controls are comprised of many small, look-alike buttons that take some getting used to.
However, they’re actually referencing the 957 Cayenne—a 2008 model, at that. Even then, it’s a pretty rare opinion and by no means universal. Maybe Gary just read this review and it struck a chord, way back when.
It’s easy to read a review or two back in the day and extrapolate to a greater or lesser degree. If you only listened to one review from Jeremy Clarkson, you’d think of the McLaren F1 as twitchy and difficult to drive. If you only listened to one review of the Camry Hybrid, you’d think it’s a petrol-powered puke machine.
Ultimately, I think it’s hard to say that automakers rushed away from buttons because of a Porsche released in 2010. Maybe if there was a huge furor in a bunch of reviews, followed by automakers and their designers coming out against buttons a few months or years later? But the supporting evidence just isn’t there. Some cars do go button crazy; I hate how modern cars have 30 buttons on the steering wheel alone. But really, I think automakers rushed to touchscreens primarily because they were high-tech and in vogue. They wanted the shiniest, newest thing to get an edge over their rivals. In many cases, they didn’t stop to think whether it was actually an improvement or not.
Overall, though, Gary has a point about one thing. The 958 models, particularly later in the run, do have an absolute boatload of buttons. Owners on Reddit have noticed, particularly in contrast to cars like Teslas which eschew them almost entirely. It’s not solely limited to the Cayenne, either. In recent years, Porsche started pulling out physical buttons and putting flat touch pads with many controls in their place. Ultimately, they still had just as many “buttons” but looked much cleaner and tidier. The only problem is you’d really struggle to hit the right one at 60 mph on the highway.
Porsche has promised that it’s returning to more physical controls in the future. The 2024 Cayenne has more physical controls, something which many drivers and auto journalists alike will appreciate.
Indeed, you’ll find a million articles of journalists decrying touch controls. Including me! But you won’t find so many demanding more touchscreens and the like, even if you go back a decade or more in history. Ultimately, Gary, we’ll have to agree to disagree, but I really loved digging into this. Let’s talk cars again sometime, y’all!
Image credits: Porsche