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Touchscreen trauma: why we shouldn’t kill buttons just yet

Published: 02 November 2018

► Touchscreens dominate car interiors...
► ...but are they better than old-fashion buttons?
► I'm not convinced

Look around most car showrooms nowadays, and you’ll see premium models with interiors rammed full of touchscreens. Fiddly, persistent switchgear is out –  and ever expansive screens inviting us to prod and swipe, are in. Touchscreen technology isn’t new; it’s been in our smartphones for a while now, but in 2018 it’s taking over our car interiors in a big way. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Take our Audi A8 L long-termer, for example. It represents the pinnacle of Audi technology – both in and out – but its tactile interior is actually a solid step backwards in my view. For the last few years, Audi has produced some of the most usable, classiest interiors around, with precise, obvious MMI controls nestled exactly where your hand naturally rests. But now it’s all gone a bit Starship Enterprise.

On the surface, the new A8 interior is neat, tidy and futuristic. When switched off, its black infotainment panels lend the interior a super-high-end feel, and when on, there’s a classy sci-fi element. These aren’t your average cheap, tablet screens either; they’re bright and offer superb contrast. In practice though, Audi’s all-in approach to touchscreens feels awkward.

What is Audi's virtual cockpit?

Without persistent controls, you need to glance more at the screen, and the haptic feedback is good but always requires slightly more pressure than you’d expect. That means more time and attention diverted to sorting the infotainment system, and less for actual driving. And, rather ironically, we praise head-up displays as they allow us to do the exact opposite.

Operating the new-fangled MMI Navigation Plus with MMI Touch (quite a mouthful, tellingly) isn’t that comfortable either. When using the touchscreen, you keep your arm floating in the air – which gets tiring after a while – or you can use your fingers to anchor your hand on the dash, while using your thumb to swipe through screens. It’s a far cry from the intuitive, ergonomic operation of before. Oh, and don’t get me started on the fingerprints left smeared across the display…

I’ve picked on our Audi A8 L for this, but it’s a problem that runs through all touchscreen-centric cars, including the Tesla Model X and Model S, too. It’s not like I’m not a fan of touchscreens – I enjoy a swipe on an iPad or iPhone as much as the next person (other tablet manufacturers are available), but it feels as though the use cases for a phone and a car are very different. Phone and tablets can consume all of our attention, and they’re just as much about an engaging user experience as they are about completing the task at hand.

On the road however, it’s all about getting things done quickly, safely and efficiently – whether it’s inputting an address, changing the heating or something else – not how cool it is to pinch and zoom on Google Earth. With that in mind, touchscreens can be a great solution – but maybe just not the sole one for cars.

What is a head-up display?

It’s easy to see why Audi has fallen for this latest digital craze – touchscreen tech gives any cabin a wow factor, and it’s the latest must-have trend – but it’s gone about it the wrong way. Mercedes’ MBUX and BMW’s latest iDrive system both offer rich, engaging touchscreens too, but only in addition to an easy-to-use trackpad or physical dial. I’m baffled why Audi didn’t pursue the same approach.

Either way, it looks like we’re stuck with touchscreen mission creep. Just like every other Audi innovation, the tech is slowly trickling its way down into every new, premium model the brand announces, from new A6 and A7 to the latest Q8. Has Audi squandered its solid platform with tech for tech’s sake, or do you prefer touchscreens after all? Let us know in the comments below.

By Curtis Moldrich

CAR's online editor and racing-sim enthusiast