Push-buttons are coming back, hurrah!

The last time a British monarch was crowned, in 1953, much of UK life was far worse than it is today. The food was awful. Everyone smoked. The smog was thick and lethal.

But one thing they did have in the 1950s was knobs, by which I mean buttons, dials and other physical protuberances that one could twist or prod to control anything from a television to a car radio.

I remembered this the other week when I rented a car in which nearly every button had been replaced by a touchscreen so baffling I nearly ran off the road trying to change the radio station.

The good news is that, in some parts of the car industry, buttons are coming back.

Physical switches will reportedly return in new Porsche Cayenne SUVs and Volkswagens. Hyundai and other button-friendly carmakers meanwhile say they will keep steering clear of what critics have called “horrific”, “stupid” and “horrendous” touchscreens.

The less good news is that the forces that needlessly wiped out so many knobs are still very much alive, not least a slavish belief in the supremacy of new technology. The question is, why? Why persist with devices that no one asked for and many drivers actively loathe, especially if they might be less safe?

One man who knows is Ian Callum, the award-winning British car designer who was Jaguar’s director of design for 20 years until 2019.

Callum, who also designed for Ford and Aston Martin, told me last week the touchscreen’s advance began with satnav screens more than 15 years ago. Tesla magnified the trend by selling cars with not much more than a giant tablet on the dashboard in a move that captivated many of his colleagues.

“A lot of the marketing guys thought ‘This is a great thing, this is modern technology and therefore we should follow suit’.”

Callum admires the simplicity and minimalism of Tesla’s design and is by no means a technophobe. But he spent a lot of time fighting what he says was “a huge amount of pressure” to put most functions on to touchscreens, including heating, air conditioning, ventilation and more. “I resisted to the moment I retired.”

Cost explained part of the pressure he faced. Experts say screens can be much cheaper than lots of physical buttons. But Callum says this was not the main driving factor.

Working It newsletter

Sign up to the Working It newsletter for everything you need to get ahead at work, in your inbox every Wednesday

“The real motivation was this visible technology that the marketing people really liked,” he says, adding he was constantly told to design for bigger and bigger screens.

His wariness about a touchscreen takeover stemmed from an understanding that the tactile nature of physical switches is instinctively appealing and you can use a button easily without taking your eyes off the road.

This is the crucial point. It’s one thing if it takes a while to work out how to navigate a touchscreen on a washing machine, but quite another if you are on a busy motorway.

Tests last year by a Swedish car magazine showed why. They revealed the driver of a 17-year-old Volvo with physical buttons doing 68mph took just 10 seconds to complete a series of tasks: turn on the radio, set it to a certain station, switch on the defroster and so on.

It took 23.5 seconds in a Tesla Model 3 and even longer in a BMW iX and other modern cars that have lost buttons to touchscreens.

An electric MG Marvel R driver took almost 45 seconds, by which time the car had gone 1,372 metres — more than four times the distance of the older Volvo. (All drivers had time to get to know the cars.)

The touchscreen has its place of course. No smartphone could work without it. But that place is not necessarily on a chunk of heavy metal moving at speed. Ask the US Navy. In 2019 it said it was going back to physical throttles on its destroyers after investigators found a complex touchscreen system had contributed to a fatal collision off Singapore.

Humans are hard-wired to value novelty, but we can also understand its risks. Social media networks have already shown us what generative AI now threatens to confirm: new technology is not always helpful or even neutral. It isn’t even always our friend.


Business Asia
the authorBusiness Asia

Leave a Reply