Forget the screens, give me fun, cool switches and buttons
Auto journalists have complained about this for years, almost since touchscreens appeared in cars. Whether for the design or the inconvenience, possibly even a safety concern, they were a sore point to the reviewers. I agree with most of these points, but they are also missing something. Physical switchgear can also enhance the driving experience and add character in ways that a touchscreen never could.
This is something I've been thinking about for quite a while, but has gotten much sharper focus over the past few months, right when a Ford Ranger tremor arrived at my house to test it out. It has a series of toggle switches on the dash that can be connected to lights, a winch, or all sorts of other accessories. And they were so fun to play with. They have some weight that makes them feel solid, but enough spring force to really tip them into any position. And the solid ka-chunk sound is brilliant. I would just flip it around for no reason or imagine preparing the Millennium Falcon to jump into hyperspace.
It's a shame they weren't just part of the standard control scheme. It would be nice to have such nice switches for commonly used items like fan settings, radio presets, and the like. They would increase the sense of the vehicle's robustness and find ordinary actions important. Surely some luxury brands have recognized this. Lamborghini has put a safety cover on the starter buttons of its cars for years, just like you would over buttons to fire guns. Bentley has beautiful knurled organ-stop valves that push and pull to open and close air vents. Mil-Spec has crisp little rocker switches made of milled aluminum in its Hummers.
Unfortunately, it seems that the broader automotive world is trying to ditch its physical buttons and switches as quickly as possible, even the premium buttons. Few cars make the statement that "switchgears are dead" like the Mercedes-Benz EQS and its available hyperscreen. It's just one giant line that encompasses all of the screens and touchscreens. Everything is controlled by taps and swipes, which feel like any other gesture you've made on your smartphone. Sure, it's a big bright screen (one that's admittedly well integrated with the car), but it only stimulates one of the senses; The feeling, the sound are unsatisfactory.
Mercedes-Benz EQS dashboard
In addition to the sensory satisfaction of good physical control, switches are also easier to operate while driving. Muscle memory is absolutely one thing, and it makes it easier to get to a specific room and grasp or press a clearly shaped control. You can feel a volume or temperature knob and know what it is, and then you instinctively know how to move it to make it do what you want. All of this means you can keep a better eye on the road. On a touchscreen, this is all the same typing, just in a slightly different area, and you may spend more time looking at the screen to find these buttons. Plus, you can buy a physical controller that comes in handy in a bumping and bouncing car. It took many times before it took me longer than necessary to point my finger at a symbol without hitting anything else.
I do not advocate the complete removal of touchscreens. You absolutely have a place for less frequently used items and those that would otherwise take up an absurd amount of dedicated space. Take navigation, for example. It would be terrible to have an entire keyboard on the dashboard that would only be used to enter one address at a time.
But I want to see automakers make the most of their switches and buttons and not be afraid to use them. They are often easier to use and can add welcome fun and character to a car. And in a world where cars keep getting better, having a unique and engaging experience is more important than ever to stand out.
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