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. Not only are analog controls and readouts less distracting, but they’re also easier to operate. You don’t have to take your eyes off the road to turn a knob. This is one of those things we intuitively knew all along but needed a study to prove.

    The infotainment screens offer a lot of functionality in one device and the ability to update and upgrade with a software update, but is that economy and flexibility worth drawing drivers’ attention away from the one thing they should be devoting their attention to–driving?

  2. I bet using the voice controls would actually take longer. Most VRT has a problem recognizing any voice as stated in the article. I bet with repeating oneself and using touch screen when voice doesn’t work probably over 2 minutes.

    1. Not only that, but if you phrase a command incorrectly, a lot of them make you wait while it reads out a laundry of options you can request, which has to stop before you have the chance to correct yourself and try again

      1. Looking at you Ford! Plus, Ford doesn’t allow your passenger to utilize the nav screen while the vehicle is moving. They are perfectly fine w/ the driver poking at the screen to change audio or climate control settings at any speed. In their favor though, there are physical dials and buttons for the HVAC…down below the screen, not well backlit, so figuring out which button does what, even after 2 yrs and 25k miles of ownership is still a major guess.

    2. Ever tried using a standard voice system with a Scottish accent?

      “Hey Mercedes, can ye turn aff the air conditioning?”
      “Setting suspension to sport mode”
      “Whit? Dinnae talk pish! Turn aff the aircon”
      “Disabling ABS, are you sure?”
      “NAW, stop it ya glakit rustbucket!”

  3. The really sad part is that this is a surprise to no one that drives and loves cars, while a touch screen is good for not frequently used items, there should always be hard buttons for common tasks so that you can use them by muscle memory as opposed to looking at the actual screen and away from the road.

  4. At 68 MPH, you’ve traveled a little over half a mile, in the 30 seconds it took you to figure out how to make the necessary adjustments on your BMW iX infotainment screen.

    This is daft.

    Touchscreens are eye candy that the Devil uses to tempt the witless and the fatuous among us.

  5. Yes! I want to see more research like this. It’s going to be very difficult to get manufacturers to step back from touchscreens, as I can see how they’d be more cost effective than individual buttons for each stack layout. Totally worth it, though. I dread having to give up my V60’s buttons for everything. At least the newer Sensus Volvos still have hard controls for *some* things.

    Bare minimum, there should be hard controls for volume, AV source, track up/down, temperature, defrost, heated/cooled seats/wheel, recirc, trip mode and reset, and lighting. They should be lit, and in easy reach of the steering wheel or gearshift. Also, to sound like a curmudgeon, do we really need all those options and customizations? I wouldn’t mind cars getting a little more basic and simple, as long as they’re good at doing car things. Comfy seats, decent-sounding stereo, good ergonomics and visibility, and FEWER THINGS TO GO WRONG.

    I loathe the automakers’ implementation of voice control and endorse the researcher’s views on it fully. I do love android auto for things like destination setting and phone stuff, though. It actually works.

  6. I’ve just swapped a Tesla Model 3 Performance for a BMW 530i and I find the iDrive system easier to use than the screen or the voice control on my Tesla. Fiddling for buttons on the Tesla, say for the wipers, was a lot more distracting, than the voice control which wanted to navigate a route to Windermere instead. The buttons caused me to take my eyes off the road for too long while my reaction to voice control made me loon as though I was verbally abusing fellow road users.

    The iDrive is more instinctive and less infuriating to use by a country mile as is BMW’s voice recognition system – that matters a lot when you have a Scots accent.

    Best info system of them all was in my old Mazda 3 that I bought 9 years ago. I would have stuck with Mazda if they didn’t stop producing hot Mazdaspeed versions of the 3.

    1. I only drove a Tesla once and I don’t recall. Are you saying the wiper controls are not on a stalk? That sounds downright dangerous.

      That said, I’m led to believe you have to go down four menus deep in idrive to access the turn signals.

      1. Wiper controls for the Model 3 are on the mainscreen but the automatic setting doesn’t adjust to conditions to quickly enough. I didn’t like the auto setting for that reason and the voice recognition system is poor so I would use the buttons instead but they are low down on the screen and it was all too easy to hit the wrong button. The poor wiper controls was my biggest complaint about my Tesla. In the BMW the wipers are on a stalk and while Tesla’s automating system was poor BMW have nailed there’s – it’s really good.

      2. Looking at you Ford! Plus, Ford doesn’t allow your passenger to utilize the nav screen while the vehicle is moving. They are perfectly fine w/ the driver poking at the screen to change audio or climate control settings at any speed. In their favor though, there are physical dials and buttons for the HVAC…down below the screen, not well backlit, so figuring out which button does what, even after 2 yrs and 25k miles of ownership is still a major guess.

  7. And just think about people who like my wife, has been driving the same car for over a decade. She flies through the controls on her 2010 Infiniti FX35 with traditional controls without even looking.

    While even after 4 years in my 2017 Flex with a touchscreen, I still am much slower. Heck I am faster on the Infiniti, which I rarely drive, than the touchscreen of the car I drive everyday.

  8. No surprise. Way back when, the US Air force did studies comparing digital readouts to analogue ones. much of the comparison was to gauges. Pilots would, with a glance, see that a needle was pointing in ‘range’, but would have to do additional mental calculations when presented with a digital number. Think of it this way. If you have to be somewhere at 6:30. You glance at an analogue watch face and see you have seven minutes to get there. You see 6:23 on a digital readout. You now have to do math. Hard, hard math.

    This was discussed back in the early eighties initial gadget fad (your door is a jar) days with digital displays. The displays were being marketed as ‘advanced features’, but in reality were a cost savings over traditional gauges. Once the novelty wore off, they faded away, but sadly are now back.

    I know 10 o’clock on my speedometer is safe for a secondary road and 12 o’clock is for the freeway. No wasted attention after a simple glance. 2 o’clock on my tachometer is the ideal shift point when urgently accelerating. 11 o’clock best for saving fuel and wear. Why make this more complicated? Because screens and software are cheap and consumers can be fooled into thinking they are improvements they need.

    This is only good design in the eyes of accountants.

    1. It was a brilliant trick on Tesla’s part. Low-volume manufacturers constantly have to source controls from other manufacturers, and it’s hard to disguise them. You don’t have to disguise a touchscreen.

      That they ruined everyone else’s controls was an unwanted side effect.

      1. Looking at you Ford! Plus, Ford doesn’t allow your passenger to utilize the nav screen while the vehicle is moving. They are perfectly fine w/ the driver poking at the screen to change audio or climate control settings at any speed. In their favor though, there are physical dials and buttons for the HVAC…down below the screen, not well backlit, so figuring out which button does what, even after 2 yrs and 25k miles of ownership is still a major guess.

    2. Ironically, certain digital gauges were proven to be vastly superior to their analog counterparts because they actually allowed the driver to know the state of things without performing any additional mental calculations.

      Want to guess which?

      If you said “digital speedometers,” give yourself a gold star. Because, hey look at that, the numbers match up exactly. You don’t have to remember the position on a dial. Well shit, that was way easier. Quoth Jesse Pinkman, “SCIENCE, BITCHES!”

      Which is why Chrysler’s digital dashes were definitely not cheaper (oh gods, they were ruinously expensive for the time,) and the early ones are generally very well liked. Digital speedometer. Ramp graph for LEDs. Left-right ‘sweep’ gauges for oil, voltage, coolant, and fuel with corresponding warning lights. And the tachometer was set up so that if you saw things going horizontal, you knew you were pushing redline.
      Of course, they then took this excellent design and promptly threw out everything good about it except the digital speedometer. We won’t even speak of the atrociously bad design of the Corvette’s… barely readable digital speedometer plus a vertical bargraph display, so deeply stupid.

      Oh, and we will accept absolutely NO shit-talking about the Reatta’s or Riviera digital dash either. There isn’t a single ‘digital dash’ these days that doesn’t emulate the ’90 Reatta’s design.

  9. So I haven’t actually read all of this yet but after spending just a short time with an “analog” car with buttons and knobs and switches and sliders, it can be interfaced with without ever taking your eyes off the road. In an instant.

    Whereas a video screen has to be looked at to interface with.

    And voice command…it’s like magic…UNTIL IT ISN’T AND THE DAMN THING WON’T FIND THE WELL-KNOWN RESTAURANT THAT’S ONLY 5 MINUTES AWAY.

    I mean it’s just common sense.

  10. ‘Way back when (I’m over 60) cars had radios with two round knobs. You could drive an unfamiliar car on a bumpy road at night in the rain and adjust your tunes without even looking. When Alpines or whatever instead started coming with rows of tiny buttons and secret procedures (find tiny button on corner and push once for ON, which will be the very same button you hold for what seems like forever on said bumpy road for OFF, while also watching speeding traffic etc., then next try to find the tiny button and process to reach your favorite station at the other end of the dial which no longer exists in favor of digital readouts where you have to peer at to read numbers), I thought to myself “This is how stupid people are getting to be, thinking this kind of thing is useful…all it does is make instruction-manual writers more important. It won’t last”. On that last part I was wrong, so wrong.

    1. As I recall, the knobs were in the same places in virtually every car in the ’60s and ’70s.

      Not only could you adjust the radio without looking, but you could also turn the headlights on and off, turn on the wipers, hit your high beams, and light your cigarette in an unfamiliar car without looking.

  11. My ’15 LEAF has a touchscreen, but physical controls for the HVAC system, volume, and track up/down. It works pretty well. My father’s ’19 XC60 is 100% touchscreen and is incredibly obnoxious to deal with.

    What is annoying about the LEAF though is that there is an SD card with some BS out of date map on it that when it gets really cold out it isn’t able to be read. This renders the entire screen and all functionality except HVAC to go away. Some isopropyl usually fixes it, but a new SD card is like $250 from Nissan, f that!

  12. Wait isn’t Elon Musk working on an app for my “Comatesla”? You know, so all these things don’t distract me at all anymore. I heard that there was a $10,000 uploadable software package so my car can read my thoughts or something.

    Me thinking to myself: “hmm…Kenny G would be nice now…Comatesla”
    CT: music starts Playing Kenny G softly with a cool splash of 70F air from vents 2 and 3

  13. Yeah, any interface geek unaligned with Certain Interests (….) have been saying this for years. Like me.

    Cars are prosthetic devices. Body extensions. Your hand learns “muscle memory” to reach a knob on some ancient car, any error corrected unconsciously by feel alone.

    In tension with this is, every connector, every mechanical/electrical interface, is *by far* less reliable than soldered connections.

    Modern mobile phones are *reliable* mainly because no connectors. Ask any EE.

    The reason for connectors is tl;dr, I could write 1000 page’s on why. They suck are large and expensive and are there for human hands alone, and when robots make tiny things, why?

    …. Well because human hands FKN LURV to touch pleasing, chunky, snappy, smooth, clicky PHYSICAL interface.

    They can be made reliable. You just don’t wanna pay for them.

    If you ever bought military surplus electronics, OH MAN IS THAT SHIT SEXY, just wonderful, heirloom quality interface.

    Mil aircraft don’t subject their pilots to that Tesla baby toy shit. Go look at fighter cockpits, now that stuff is *quality* interface, functional beauty, life or death function and there is truly nothing more beautiful!

  14. Let me preface this by saying a near 50 year old Gen X’r who disdains touch screens which is a predictable enough response. And if you put me behind the wheel of any of those newer cars, my response times would definitely be closer than if I was driving the old school XC70.

    The lack of any data around the tester’s ages is precisely what was missing from this article. I would find it far more meaningful to see those tests repeated for some who is, say ages 25 – 30, and then compare that to someone double that age bracket. My nine year old nephew wizzes through touch screen menus like his life depends upon it, and I would argue that response times are generational.

    All that said, it is arguable that performing ANY desired function via touch screen DOES require taking your eyes of the roads, even if it is for only several seconds. While performing any desired function via buttons and knobs, with familiarity, never requires taking your eyes off the road.

    The real solution to all of this is way better voice activated controls that understand natural language phrases and aren’t so rigid. But voice controls aren’t sexy so touch screens and distraction prevail.

    1. this study is entirely unsurprising to me. i’m a 36 year old. around about 10 years ago, i mostly gave up on touch screens in vehicles. i was heavily involved in mp3car for a number of years, and still have the 7″ computer touch screens on my parts bench. i’ve spent more on touch screens than many have spent on entire radios…

      for the uninitiated, mp3car.com was the computer-in-a-car-with-a-touchscreen club before it was as normal as it is now. it’s heyday was the early 2000’s. the forum was experimenting with in-car UI design, sunlight readability, and button sizing/color while the OEM’s were still debating if they should have a cassette, mini disc, or cd players in vehicles, and xm and sirius were separate entities.

      it was an interesting experience, and i learned a lot things about UI, software, and computers. it was a lot of fun, and the mentality of “move fast and break things” was in full effect.

      but what i learned the most was how distracting and irritating touch screens in a car are. fingerprints obscuring view, buttons never where you expect them to be because there’s no obvious tactile feedback, not to mention trying to coordinate hitting a specific button while mitigating vehicle vibreations, and then there’s the software glitches, or touchscreen layer mis-reads a touch and you ‘press’ somewhere else on the screen…

      these days, my first rule of any vehicle i own is that i MUST be able to drive it for a month without the factory radio installed. it’s specifically how i’ve ended up with a ’14 brz and a ’18 tacoma. they both have a simple single-din radio now that i can easily use without ever looking away from the road.

      it was an incredibly interesting arc to follow through on, to go to a fully-technical touchscreen solution and back to simple and basic, and i don’t regret any of the thousands i spent. it was cheaper than college, and i learned more than any single college course could’ve taught me.

  15. How many accidents and deaths are needed here before some tv lawyer files a huge class action vs the bullshit tech the automakers want to refer to as “progress.” Sometimes a lot of bad shit goes down before people learn. See cars and cell phones if you need a reference…

  16. IIHS should make this a primary focus of their “distracted driving” efforts to help reduce accidents. I’m shocked that they haven’t already, but the only information I could find on their website was about cell phone use increasing the likelihood of accidents. If the insurance companies start downgrading the safety ratings of vehicles with screens vs knobs, that might have a chance of actually impacting the market. The fact is that ALL of the screen/software control stuff is only for cost-saving to the manufacturers. Unless the manufacturers decide to prioritize driver experience above profit or until someone provides some more costly impetus for change, they’ll keep consolidating controls into screen-based solutions. I’m not totally anti-screen, but studies like this could help determine the optimum placement of controls between screens and physical knobs/buttons to maximize usefulness and safety.

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