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Infotainment systems are relatively new in the car market. And automakers appear to be competing to see which has the biggest screens. In addition, some brands have replaced buttons with touchscreens to perform virtually every task. However, that move could have adverse effects on users. In fact, pressing physical buttons appears to reduce anxiety.

The rise of touchscreens might not end anytime soon

Car infotainment touchscreen, buttons and knobs, car controls
2023 Nissan Frontier | Joe Santos, MotorBiscuit

Although touchscreens are regarded as new tech, they’ve been around for decades. The first car with a touchscreen debuted in the ’80s — the 1986 Buick Riviera. Unsurprisingly, it was a luxury car, and as with many high-tech features, luxury cars were the earliest adopters of touchscreen tech. However, touchscreens became cheaper and, in turn, more widespread. 

Besides that, the average person had become familiar with touchscreen tech by the 2010s thanks to smartphone touchscreens. So many automakers began transitioning from physical controls such as rotary dials to touchscreens. Regarding smartphones, consumers continued wanting and buying models with larger screens, so it’s no surprise carmakers increased the size of their touchscreens.

Those large touchscreens also became more complex as manufacturers added more features and systems. That’s helped make car interiors look sleeker and more futuristic. But the tech is not without flaws.

Here’s how car buttons and knobs might have mental health benefits

According to Science Friday, pushing buttons can have mental health benefits. It boils down to the concept of control. The central idea is that people expect a particular outcome when they press buttons and turn knobs.

The most literal example in vehicles is the push-button start feature, allowing drivers to start the car with the push of a button. People can easily understand the cause and effect of pushing that button, but it’s a different story with touchscreens. When automakers bury commands behind layers of menus on a touchscreen, they’re accessible only through multiple taps. 

That complexity can cause anxiety over tapping the wrong command and getting lost in a mazelike infotainment system. In comparison, a car with simple controls — where physical buttons and knobs perform one task — can be far less stressful because users can be sure the button will do its job. 

Car touchscreens can be harmful in other ways

Not everyone gets anxious when using a complex infotainment system, and kids who grew up using touchscreens might have an easier time navigating these types of infotainment systems. However, car touchscreens can be a safety hazard. That’s partly why some automakers have begun reverting to physical controls in their vehicles.

The goal is to simplify vehicle controls by no longer placing settings behind multiple layers of menus. Having fewer layers means fewer instances when users must look at the screen to perform a task. Taking one’s eyes off the road to select options on a touchscreen creates an unsafe behavior that can cause crashes. Plus, touchscreens can get smudged, further distracting the driver.


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