Look, there’s no nice way to say this, so I’m just going to come out and say it: if any of you reading this are a corporation that builds cars, and if, in those cars, you’re still using something other than a touchscreen on your infotainment controls, you’re doing it wrong. So very wrong. Time to wise up and get rid of your stupid little knobs and touchpads and weird little joysticks.
Now, let me be absolutely clear here: I’m generally very pro-physical controller. I love knobs and buttons and joysticks—hell, I once built a 15x-scale Atari joystick just because I find these sorts of things so fascinating.
And I like physical controls for things like, say, radio volume and tuning, too. This is not a screed against physical controls. It’s a screed against terrible physical controls used to control an on-screen interface that is clearly, obviously, much more suited to touch controls.
This is important because that infotainment screen in the center of almost every new car’s dashboard is becoming more and more important to the overall experience the driver (and passengers) have with the car. A frustrating interface for the system can be the kind of flaw that colors a driver’s entire experience with the car.
Let’s take Lexus’ Remote Touch haptic joystick-like interface device, for example. Here’s how I described the way it affected my appreciation of Lexuses in my review of the LX 570:
It’s been my least favorite part of every Lexus I’ve tested, even ones I’ve liked a lot, like the GS-F. It’s so terrible that it casts a pallor of shittiness over all your interactions with the car, like shoving a turd in a high-speed fan and turning it into a foul-smelling mist that coats the whole interior of the car.
That’s not good ad copy there. It’s not just Lexus that uses these, of course. Right now, I believe that there’s at least one or more models that use knob or track pad or control doohickey infotainment controls from companies as diverse as Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Mazda, Nissan, Infiniti, and there’s probably some I’m missing. Granted, at least a few automakers on that list have knobs or buttons in addition to touch screens, but... why?
Using a rotary knob was just fine for entering your initials (or, more likely, the word ASS) in Asteroids, but using it for a whole address in a GPS will make you want to yank that knob off and bite into it like it was a goddamn Reece’s cup.
I just had the Volvo XC60 with a knob-based UI for its infotainment system, and it was a demonic torture machine when it came to trying to use the Nav system.
The worst part about all this is that there is absolutely no reason to be stuck with these shitty controls. I know touch-based screen systems are as cheap or cheaper than control-hardware based systems. Lower-end cars like Hyundais and Hondas use touch-based systems, and I’m pretty damn sure their setups do not cost more than what Mercedes is putting in their cars. And of course, the XC60 is a dated model, the new XC90 goes full modern with a huge touch screen.
Touch-based UIs for center-stack screens are easy and intuitive. They’re what we use on our phones every freaking day. We get how to use an on-screen keyboard immediately. Picking letters from a spinning virtual wheel of letters much less so.
Center-stack screens are here to stay, and more and more of a car’s functions are only accessible via these screens and their often-terrible interfaces.
Carmakers still deluding themselves into thinking that any rational person prefers sliding around an awkward little control stub or twirling a fat knob like we were trying for the high score in Tempest need to wake the fuck up, already.
Just look at this Mercedes-produced video on how to enter addresses via their knob system. They want it to look easy, but if you think about how much easier it would be if you could just tap the damn letters, it all starts to seem sort of ridiculous.
Plus, that pointer controller hardware costs money, and can physically wear out and break. If there’s some upside (beyond freedom from fingerprints) that physical pointer controls have over touch interfaces, I’ve yet to hear it.
There’s no reason for this sort of frustration. As a group, carmakers should just agree that the best way to select things on a screen on your dash is via the occupants’ built-in Mark I fingers.