Swedish Test Offers Compelling Evidence That Buttons Are Less Distracting Than Touchscreen Infotainment

Touchscreen Distracting Buttons Topshot

It’s often claimed that touchscreen infotainment systems are less safe than traditional buttons and knobs, and thanks to Swedish automotive outlet Vi Bilägare, we finally have some promising data. The outlet rounded up a whole host of modern vehicles including a Tesla Model 3, a Hyundai Ioniq 5, and a Subaru Outback, then put their cabin controls to a distraction test.

As a baseline vehicle without touchscreen infotainment, Vi Bilägare gave a 2005 Volvo V70 some time off from schlepping furniture and strollers. While the V70’s center stack is essentially an anvil compared to modern cars’ touchscreens, it’s still a fairly busy traditional dashboard with plenty of buttons and knobs.

Vi Bilgare V70 Buttons
Photo credit: Glenn Lindberg/Vi Bilägare

The team at Vi Bilägare chose a litany of fairly simple tests for drivers to perform. The first was an obvious winter morning routine of turning on the heated seat, bumping up HVAC temperature by two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and activating the rear defroster. The second was as common as can be, to power on the radio and set the channel to Sweden’s P1 talk channel. The third was to simply reset the trip computer, and the fourth was to dim the interior lights and turn the center display off. While that last test sounds a bit strange, low dashboard illumination really helps night visibility.

To equalize the playing field a bit, Vi Bilägare says that drivers were given the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the controls in each vehicle before testing began. After all, anyone who owns a modern car has probably familiarized themselves with the controls, so it only makes sense to minimize unfamiliarity. Each car was then driven at 110 km/h (68 mph) while time required to make adjustments was measured. At 110 km/h, a car travels around 100 feet per second (30.556 meters per second), so easy-to-use controls can really be the difference between a smooth drive and having a massive crash. Anyone care to predict what the results were?

Tesla Model 3 touchscreen
Photo credit: Courtesy of Tesla, Inc.

While the full list of results can be found on Vi Bilägare’s website, here are some key notes on vehicles offered in the U.S. market. In first place, it’s the Volvo V70, in which the driver required just ten seconds to complete every task. The Volvo C40 wasn’t far behind at 13.7 seconds, but testing quickly took a turn for the worse. There’s a 5.7-second delta between the Volvo C40 and the next-best Subaru Outback, which means that the tasks in the Outback took almost twice as long as in the V70. The Mercedes-Benz GLB was hot on the heels of the Outback at 20.2 seconds, while the Tesla Model 3 driver required 23.5 seconds to complete the tasks.

Completing tasks in the Volkswagen ID.3 took 25.7 seconds, and although the ID.3 isn’t sold in America, the ID.4 shares an infotainment family with the ID.3 and enjoys fair popularity in the states. The Hyundai Ioniq 5 driver needed 26.7 seconds to complete the tasks, and I can totally see why. Its touchscreen infotainment system doesn’t feature a permanent hard key for home, instead requiring owners to set a programmable button as a hard home key. Bringing up the rear for cars familiar to Americans is the BMW iX, requiring a massive 30.4 seconds of attention. While BMW’s certainly changed since the 2000s, it sounds like iDrive is as distracting as ever.

BMW iX iDrive 8 touchscreen
Photo credit: BMW

In addition to the rather shocking test results, Vi Bilägare brought up several grips with infotainment systems that are all completely valid, from too much complexity to maddening cost-cutting.

BMW iX also offers a touchscreen, but not as big as Tesla’s, and also more physical buttons. But that’s no guarantee for a system which is easy to use. The BMW’s infotainment system has lots of features, but it also has one of the most complex and complicated user interfaces ever designed.

Another sin is committed by Volkswagen and Seat. In order to save money, the touch-sensitive climate controls below the screen in the ID.3 and Leon are not backlit which make them completely invisible at night.

In addition, Vi Bilägare decided to conduct all tests through touchscreens and physical controls, foregoing voice controls with the following justification.

The carmakers are keen to point out that many features now can be activated by voice. But the voice control systems are not always easy to use, they can’t control every function and they don’t always work as advertised, which is why the voice control systems were not tested in this experiment.

While factoring out voice control systems may seem like it could tilt the tables a touch, personal experience with just about every voice control system on the market says that they’re incredibly sluggish even when they take commands perfectly, and some level of concentration is required when timing voice commands. Plus, Vi Bilägare is definitely right that voice controls can be iffy. They just don’t work when you have the windows open or have passengers on board.

325i Interior
Photo credit: Thomas Hundal

While one study with one set of drivers in one set of cars likely isn’t enough data to draw absolute industry-wide conclusions from, Vi Bilägare’s testing holds some serious promise. I’m excited to see other tests of modern infotainment systems against trust buttons and knobs. In any case, it’s nice having some data to back up claims that traditional controls are less distracting than touchscreen infotainment.

Lead photo credit: Hyundai

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44 Responses

  1. This should just be common sense and I absolutely hate this proliferation of screens. I wouldn’t buy a vehicle without buttons. My Ram has the 8.4” screen and enough buttons to control virtually everything you need to on a regular basis.

  2. Voice commands are definitely not there yet. I have a voice-activated dash cam in my car, which uses the command “take picture” to capture a still image. A while back, someone cut me off in traffic, and I shouted, “Hey, dipshit!”… and the camera took a picture.

    “Hey Dipshit” has now become my standard voice command for taking photos with that stupid thing. It always works. Certain song lyrics will set it off too, but I haven’t yet been able to determine exactly what. Nothing that sounds like “take picture,” though.

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