We love cars with row-upon-row of gleaming toggle switches and buttons. They're anachronistic and possibly a bit elitist, but they enhance the feeling of a direct connection between you and your machine. Sadly, they're going the way of the dodo.
There's something delightfully simple about the toggle switch, something eminently satisfying about the press of a button. Distilled down, the switch is nothing more than a circuit breaker, a device for controlling a small part of your car, but it's dying. It's being replaced by touch-activated display screens, capacitive touch panels, passive monitoring systems, proximity sensors, and automatic bottom-coddling devices. In many cars, you no longer have to decide it's dark enough to turn your lights on or wet enough to run your wipers. There's something to be said for the audible, tactile pop you get when you push a chromed door release button. It directly, inescapably connects you to the process.
One reason modern cars lack the character of their forebears is they seek to remove the effort from the act of driving. We cannot be alone in noticing a correlation between the effort it takes to drive a car and the love people have for it. Witness crank-start antiques where the driver does the spark advancement, adjusts the hand throttle, checks the oiling mechanisms, hits the grease zerks every couple days, and re-varnishes the wooden floors once a year. It takes work to make those machines move, and it requires a level of understanding between man and machine which long ago evaporated. Predictably, almost a century on, people still find that stuff fascinating.
Conversely, many of the most tech-laden cars on the market are devoid of lust. There's no sex in an iDrive knob, no joy in a touch screen, no passion in an electronic trunk release. For all the effort that goes into a modern interior, cars are becoming less engaging and more antiseptic. The reveal of the 2011 Lincoln MKX at the Detroit Auto Show introduced a car with almost no physical buttons, and while it's a neat concept, it's almost too futuristic — the MKX represents a Jetsons-type design aesthetic where no one stopped to consider how detached the end result would be. The Nissan GT-R presents a similar case: It's an incredible feat of engineering, and yet, it's regularly derided as unexciting and dull. Is the car too talented for its own good, or is the giant, shotgun-riding computer screen the culprit? Why, in an age where the computer is so closely tied to work, would we want one planted in one of the last bastions of personal meditation?
Physical switches connect you to the car. There's satisfaction in the cause and effect they present. That said, mourning their passing is conflicting, as the relentless march of technology and the constant development of shiny things is always fascinating. On a certain level, the things which make cars lovable are the things that make them dangerous, so perhaps the rise of wildly distracting multimedia and telecommunication systems simply means we'll circle back around to dangerous cars again. Regardless, we'll always lament the loss of the good, old-fashioned button.
Chrysler push-button image courtesy Telstar Logistics