Car companies tell us the buttons on your dashboard are soon to be replaced with pinches and swipes. Some are already pushing even further with touch screens you don’t actually touch. Let’s look closer at some of this tech and see if it’s actually worth being wide-eyed over.

BMW and Volkswagen brought gesture-driven interface systems to the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show. Volkswagen decided to appeal to the realists with the e-Golf Touch, a standard-looking hatchback with an infotainment rig that basically looked and felt like a big iPhone.

BMW went the other direction, displaying an evolution of their already extremely futuristic i8 electric sports car that looks like it just landed from a mission to Mars.

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This car was loaded with the company’s “AirTouch” technology that basically watches the driver and passenger through little sensors in the dash. Those “eyes” can detect and interpret several distinct hand motions as controls through menus.

The benefit of this is that an ultra-wide infotainment screen can be placed outside the occupant’s physical reach but still operated with tactile motions that will be familiar to smartphone users. On top of that the whole system is hypothetically networked to your personal electronic devices to port menus, contacts, and store favorites.

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Functions you use often would be prominent on the home screen, automatic alerts could be sent from your car to your contacts like “I’m running late.”

So how did it work? Honestly, it felt a little awkward. The absence of buttons on the dashboard makes for a sexy interior, but once those buttons are gone you’re forced to memorize a hand-signal routine for activities that used to be operated perfectly intuitively.

H.P.B. Optoelectronics was at CES as well, showing off their own gesture-driven control system they were trying to sell to automakers. This is how you increase the volume on the stereo:

Is that really easier than tapping the volume button on a steering wheel, or you know, turning a knob?

Some might remember that Ford also experimented with swipe-controls on Lincoln luxury vehicles a few years ago. They were panned so badly that company scurried back to the safety of hard buttons when the Lincoln MKC was relaunched.

But car companies have noticed the love and devotion consumers dump on their smartphones and are desperate to claim some of that thunder. Especially as we start hearing more about automobiles as a service, and an inevitable disconnection from “driving” as we know it.

Volkswagen’s concept was a bit more realistic. Its enormous 9.2-inch screen runs your car like an iPad; moving through menus looks pretty much as intuitive as company CEO Herbert Diess promised in his keynote address.

What used to be hardware has been moved to software, it’s just a little easier to get a handle on when you’re not two feet away trying to play a screen like a digitized marionette like the BMW.

Of course the real advantage to this tech isn’t the elimination of buttons; it’s the limitless functionality you unlock when your car’s control stack is a computer instead of a box with ten buttons on it. Eventually you could be able to swipe endlessly through as many functions as you can imagine, configured any way you like.

Here’s a closer look at the VW system in action:

Miming to your car isn’t too exciting, but upgrading a space from a few controls to an infinite number of displays and functions definitely is.

Yet even VW’s “it’s pretty much just a phone” setup isn’t without flaws. You’re used to running your smartphone or tablet right in front of you, maybe even with two thumbs. The dash-mounted system doesn’t allow for this.

Then there’s the lag, the thing that continues to plague modern touch screens in cars. Responses aren’t instantaneous like they are on your phone, which will be the number one reason this concept drives consumers insane if it’s not rectified in the production version.

The swipes and grabs that are easy to do on something in your lap or hand are a little more awkward when the screen is off to your side, and as fault-free as the tech could eventually get those ergonomics are going to be a major decider in whether or not the public accepts gesture-driven car controls.

Volkswagen promises that this technology will be in production cars by the end of 2016. Other automakers will be close to that timeline. That means this is could be the year that in-car gesture control flourishes or fails.

And it still might fall on its face. Remember when automakers introduced voice-activated interface systems? It seems to me like most people don’t even remember that this technology a part of their own cars.

Gesture-driven touch screens have the added benefit of being softballed to consumers because we’re comfortable with it on our phones. It’s not going to get popular because it’s cute and fun, but some version of it is pretty much inevitable because of just how much more you’ll be able to do with the same amount of dashboard real estate.

The research and development is pretty much there. The screens and software can only get cheaper, and I bet you’ll be running your cars controls on a big sheet of GorillaGlass before your car is driving itself. I just hope it gets a little faster and more intuitive first.

Images/video via the author, BMW, Volkswagen, Kelley Blue Book


Contact the author at andrew@jalopnik.com.