Touch-Screen Technology Is a Step in the Wrong Direction

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Apr 25, 2018

Dear Car Talk:

I've read your two recent columns about new safety features in cars, and I agree that they're probably really great. However, my husband has a new Subaru Forester, and I absolutely hate the touch screen and most of the other controls in the car, like the heating and cooling. The touch screen makes it impossible to adjust the radio without looking at the screen, and it's also really hard to touch the correct point on the screen if you're driving on even a slightly bumpy road. The settings for temperature also require looking at a number on a display, since the dials don't have start and stop points.

The backup camera is great, but I think they've crammed so much into that touch screen that more drivers are going to be distracted. Are any carmakers reconsidering this design? I hope they do before I'm ready for a new car. -- Barbara

You're right, Barbara: Cramming everything into a touch screen is dangerous. The good news is we're starting to see a backlash against some of this silliness.

Honda decided at some point that it was cheaper or "cooler" to eliminate the radio's volume knob, and created a little thing you slid your finger across to adjust the volume. When we reviewed Hondas, we found it so unpleasant to use that we said it was a deal-breaker for what otherwise was a very good car. Apparently, lots of people agreed with us. You may remember the "March for Our Volume Knobs" protests in cities across the country. Well, Honda recently relented and added a volume knob back to newer models.

The volume knob is a perfect example. You knew where to find it by reach, and you could feel how much you were turning it up or down without looking at it. It was ergonomically perfect. And they went and screwed it up; they tried to uninvent the wheel. The same is true for other controls we use frequently, like temperature levels, fan speed and radio presets.

The good news is that the smarter manufacturers have been adding back hard buttons for that stuff, while leaving the touch screen for detailed entertainment choices and vehicle preferences that you use less frequently.

Another example of backward thinking can be seen in today's automatic transmission shifters. You used to be able to grab the shifter and shift from park to drive, or drive to reverse, just by feel.

Now some cars have push-button selectors or joysticks that require attention and concentration (and then a short moment of prayer while you wait to see if your gear wish was granted). When we drove a Cadillac CT6 with a standard automatic shifter a few weeks ago, it was an unexpected joy.

And while the transmission-shifter trend is still heading in the wrong direction, we're hoping that the "everything via the touch screen" trend is peaking or, better yet, has peaked.

The best thing you can do is refuse to buy a car that isn't easy for you to operate. Sales are what manufacturers respond to, and if you tell the Subaru salesman that you love the Forester but won't buy it because you have to take your eyes off the road to adjust the temperature, that's the strongest message you can send.

And you just have to hope that there are more Barbaras out there than there are 25-year-olds who love their screens.

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