By on October 30, 2015

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I recently had the chance to test out the “new” Volkswagen Passat, which is so new that the designers were explaining to a whole group of journalists how the position of the rear reflectors has changed compared to the outgoing model.

Actually, I kind of like the new Passat. It was impressive in a lot of ways, right down to the new touchscreen, which finally sees Volkswagen catching up to some of the technology and features rival models have been using for roughly five years. As I was driving it, I couldn’t help but think to myself: I like a good touchscreen.

What I don’t like is a knob.

It seems that these are our only choices in today’s infotainment world: a touchscreen or a knob. Some cars have touchscreens. Some cars have knobs. And given that basically every new car has an infotainment system, this is an important choice. Do you want to control your screen by touching it, like a smartphone? Or by moving around a controller located on the center console, like a computer?

Chevrolet MyLinkAutomakers appear to be largely split on this issue. Most mainstream car companies, the Fords and Chevys of the world, offer a touchscreen. You touch, it screens. The benefit of this is that you touch exactly where you want, and the system does exactly what you want, unless you are in a Chevy, in which case it does what you want after it thinks for a few seconds/minutes/it’ll do it this weekend.

High-end brands tend to prefer knobs. Lexus has its famous Remote Touch Controller, which is sort of like a computer mouse in the sense that you move around a little arrow and you click on stuff, but not really like a computer mouse in the sense that you’re supposed to do this at 75 mph. BMW’s iDrive and Audi’s MMI both work similarly: you move a dial to control the infotainment system. You could touch the screen, but it wouldn’t do anything, and you’d just end up getting fingerprints on it.

2013 BMW 750Li, Interior, Rear iDrive Controller, Picture Courtesy of Alex L. DykesMe, I personally prefer a touchscreen. Let me tell you why: because it’s incredibly easy to use. A button says “MAP.” I press “MAP.” The MAP comes up. This is very different than in, say, a BMW 7 Series, where a button says “MAP,” so you grab the little dial, and you move over to the button, and you’re about to click on it, but then there’s a bump in the road, and you accidentally click somewhere else, such as on a button that says “CLIMATE,” and now you have no idea where you’re going, so you crash into a bus shelter.

Of course, I am not saying that the BMW 7 Series is scary. What I am saying is that the BMW 7 Series is incredibly scary.

But the manufacturers that use knobs don’t see it that way. They say that if they put the knob in the center console, they can move the infotainment screen higher on the dashboard, away from your reach, which means you have to take your eyes off the road less in order to do things. This is true, of course, but I would like to point out that I would take my eyes off the road even less if I could just touch the damn screen wherever I want.

Maybe the best manufacturer is Mazda, who undoubtedly had this argument in some engineering meeting, which likely led to raised voices and harsh words and maybe even some good old-fashioned chair throwin’. So what they did is, they put in a knob and a touchscreen. This allows you to use both hands to control the screen at any one given time.

No, I’m just kidding, what it allows you to do is use the touchscreen when you’re feeling touchscreeny and use the knob when you’re feeling knobby. I think this is Mazda’s greatest decision since 2002, when they decided to start making decent cars.

Unfortunately, it’s not a decision anyone else seems to be making, as other automakers have all staked their claims: some have gone touchscreen. Some have gone knob. But I will continue to hope that in this great war of in-car screen controls, the touchscreen people will slay the knob people and claim victory over the Great Land of Infotainment. Until then, I will do my best to keep from crashing into bus shelters.

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59 Comments on “Doug Drives: Reach Out And Touch Something … Screen or Knob?...”

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Omitting the homo-erotic references or snide remarks regarding my personality, a knob is far better.

    Finding the exact spot on a touch screen to activate what you need, seeing it if there is glare and using just the right amount of pressure is both dangerous when driving and almost impossible if driving while wearing warm gloves.

    A nice big knob is easy to reach and handle.

    New is not always better.

    Personally I am waiting for a smart vehicle manufacturer to produce a car for the fastest growing segment in North America, the aging boomers with pains, diminishing eyesight and reduced flexibility. Much like the one produced on Top Gear, with only the basic requirements and a few large and easy to reach and handle controls.

    • 0 avatar

      > A nice big knob is easy to reach and handle.

      Are we doing phrasing?

    • 0 avatar

      Having used both, I am inclined to agree. I guess I am more of a knob guy than a touch guy :)

      3 reasons for this: My car with knob also had physical buttons for all the stuff you would want to do while driving.
      The problem cited about bumps and knobs is actually more of an issue with the touch screen (you reach out, just before your finger lands a bump moves it a fraction, and now you are looking for the back button which does not exist because it is a touch screen!)
      I can deal with the usabilty of a knob

      • 0 avatar

        I agree. I hate touchscreens. I think Mercedes’ outgoing Comand was the most simple. Buttons for everything you wanted. 5-6 simple choices up top. And simple choices on the bottom for each one. Some of the new systems are way to complicated.

    • 0 avatar

      1966 Ford Fairlane.

      1963 Chevrolet pickup truck.

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    Pffftt. Upper crust First World problems, I say. I’ve unburdened myself of such concerns by hiding from technology and owning cars with dot matrix single-line radio displays. There is no touchscreen. There’s hardly a screen at all. There’s knobs. One controls volume and volume only. Another controls temperature and temperature only. That’s luxury.

    Did I mention my phone is an old slider style and therefore I don’t need a man purse to carry it around?

  • avatar

    I used to be solidly in the “knob” camp. After all, use of a touch screen requires both hands AND eyes. Knob’s can, by their physical presence, be a hand’s only endeavor.

    Then I drove my boss’s Model S. I like how they have reserved real estate on the bottom and top of the screen for specific functions. You could actually kick the temperature up/down without looking (after some practice). But this requires a large screen which most cars don’t have.

  • avatar

    Buttons and knobs. Period.

    Feedback is king. Real, tactile feedback that lets me know that I have successfully manipulated the switchgear without having to wait for confirmation.

    A touch screen is find as a secondary control, working in concert with a proper button and knob setup.

    This goes for both infotainment and HVAC, and auxiliary controls such as heated seats.

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed. Multi-display screens mean having to remove ones attention from driving. If one doesn’t want to focus on driving then one might as well call Google and put a deposit on one of their autonomous pods.

  • avatar

    Why not both? Plus steering wheel controls.

    Also, I demand buttons and knobs for my HVAC controls!

  • avatar

    The best human interface for a human-driven car is one that can be learned with muscle memory and can then be used without visual line-of-sight.

    As such, although I agree that a touchscreen is easier for a new user, a well-designed knob-like controller is much less distracting when learned. Visual line-of-sight is only needed to confirm a setting, not to search for it.

    • 0 avatar

      THIS THIS THIS!!! muscle memory…. my old daily driver has a couple knobs. knobs with end points. so i “KNOW” that VENT is two clicks from the far left. no need to look.

      wife’s daily driver has screens. incredibly distracting. menu to menu locations change, no confirmation it worked. etc. etc…

      this is a bugaboo with me. seems amazing people don’t listen to interaction designers and get this settled. maybe the model S solved it with fixed location buttons on screen. eventually we’ll be able to make screens that actuate when you touch them giving tactile feedback. maybe we’re just in a transition space.

      • 0 avatar
        Nick Engineer

        @slow_poke, all valid points. There is newer tech that will make any glass surface more alive that we are used to today, but there are lots of problems, and it’s obviously expensive and unproven.

  • avatar

    Knobs & buttons all the way. I actually sourced my headunit from eBay to get an “old skool” unit with real buttons for my station presets and a nice volume knob (Alpine CDA-117). I’m lucky to have vehicles that still take standard DIN units (read cheap, owns cars from ’00s). The wife’s Volvo on the other hand has all that integrated stuff, so no choices there, but thankfully it has knobs & buttons too. I have no idea how people manage audio with touchscreens, way too much looking instead of doing things by feel. Now with mapping (GPS) touchscreens make sense so you can scroll and zoom, but for input addresses voice control is the way to go.

  • avatar

    Although I think I’m a touchscreen guy–smart phones have done that–there’s a third option: voice command. Properly done commands and recognitions can reduce screen touches required, and are almost instinctive. Plus I can enjoy the Star Trek feeling.
    Does anyone during test of infotainment systems ever try that process? And report on it?

  • avatar

    I like knobs and buttons.
    I also like display screens but only if it’s really that useful and MUST include the Touchscreen capability [looking at you, Nissan!]:

    – If you can’t see the screen because of the glare.. no!
    – If there’s a radio/control display screen, then it MUST have Touchscreen capability!
    – If you can’t touch it for it to work properly [on ‘Touchscreen’ displays because you wear gloves (cold winter driving)]… no!
    – If the display console is near the bottom of the center console and you have to take you eyes off the road… no!
    – The ENTIRE screen should be USED instead of just 2/3 of the screen so if the displayed information is cut off/doesn’t scroll… No!

    For HVAC, a basic rotary knob for temp control is preferable, instead of the auto climate control, since you just turn the knob from cold to hot.
    – In some cars, a smaller rotary dial [similar to the volume control/on/off button] is provided and you must to a SPECIFIC temp!
    – Who the hell cares about the specific temp esp. when you’re driving?!
    – Is it really that difficult to turn a dial to either a blue area for the level of coldness or to a red area for the level of heat?!
    – Just make it cold, cool or hot!

    • 0 avatar

      No one I know specifically cares about the numerical reading in F or C; they do, however, like the consistent temperature automatic climate control provides. If you regularly drive in varying light and wind conditions, which I do, automatic climate control is nice because it obviates the need to fiddle constantly with the HVAC controls NOT to change the temperature. And yes, I drive one vehicle with automatic climate control and one vehicle with manual; I prefer the former.

      Touch screens versus buttons is a totally separate issue.

  • avatar

    In my ’14 Mazda3 at least, the touchscreen only works when you’re at a standstill – while you’re driving the knob is the only option. AFAIK Mazda hasn’t changed that in the new models.

    The good news is that the knob is very easy to use and far less distracting than reaching up to use the touchscreen anyway. In fact, when I need to change the climate control (which I do much less frequently) it can be unsettling, because I have to look so far down and away from the road to make sure I press the correct button.

    The touchscreen comes in handy when typing in an address for navigation. But after a year and a half of living with one, the control knob is clearly the better solution.

  • avatar
    Nick Engineer

    I had a hard time getting used to the knob on a 7 series a few years ago. I found it very distracting and incredibly stupefying. After a couple of months I gave up. The audi mmi is a little better, but still annoying.

    My first preference would be old skool knobs and buttons, second, voice command, and the other ones I would find very distracting, but I’d probably prefer touch over knob. Have they changed that much since 5 years ago? I’d be interested in touch if it really made minimal attention demands from the driver.

    both knob and touch are problematic for me. They concentrate all functions into a small space, so you have no spatial separation of the various systems. They also unify the interface and controls, so you have no tactile differentiation of the controls. And they require visual awareness due to the obligatory screen. They are necessarily distracting, because they require cognitive processing, whereas knobs and buttons can be processes subconsciously. On an old school car your hands can move to the specific control without looking, or by feeling your way there if you need to, and I can fiddle with the temp controls, and do various other routine comfort and safety tasks. If I need feedback, or status, it is just a matter of quickly looking at an on/off indicator on the dash.

    Are there any touch or knob systems that support subconscious processing for the driver? A screen that must be read is a conscious task requiring higher level cognitive processing. If you have a knob that adjusts the screen selection, that requires even more attention for that feedback loop.

    Can anyone with a touchscreen or knob interface do the same task faster and with as little cognitive load as with old school dials, knobs and buttons? Until that is possible, I am skeptical of touch and knob interfaces.

    I’d take voice command any day. It requires good design, but can be made to coexist with old school physical controls, and with touch or knob interfaces.

  • avatar

    I think the author failed to make the distinction between real knobs and fake knobs.

    To me a real knob is like the volume control on my radio. It does two things and two things only: 1) pushing turns the radio on/off; 2) turning increases/decreases the volume.

    A fake knob is like putting the touchscreen cursor on a joystick. Read the following quote:

    “…a button says “MAP,” so you grab the little dial, and you move over to the button, and you’re about to click on it…” That’s not a real knob that moves a brush on a rheostat; that’s a fake knob that serves as a joystick.

    As far as I am concerned, “infotainment” controls that are more complicated than a volume/power knob on the left, a tuning knob on the right, and 5 or 6 preset station buttons below are probably too distracting for safety.

    And what are you doing looking at a map (whether it’s on a screen or paper) while driving? You need to be pulled over and given a ticket. Write the G.D. directions down on a piece of paper before you leave.

  • avatar

    Levers all the way.

  • avatar

    For a long time it was considered good ergonomics for switches and controls to be placed and shaped in such a way that a driver could operate them by touch or feel, and without taking his or her eyes off the road. The touchscreens and control knobs described in the article require exactly the opposite, and from a safety standpoint are a big step backwards.

  • avatar

    Touchscreens like on my cheap Moto E phone are a constant frustration. My Acura has knobs, which are easy to work, it’s just that I don’t understand what they all do, especially when accessing a USB drive or bluetooth.

  • avatar

    I demand physical controls for HVAC.

    For nav/entertainment, I don’t mind a well-designed non-touch system.

    (I like my Volvo’s, in that it has a knob and buttons [T9 on the numeric pad] for selecting modes and entering addresses, rather than one knob to rule them all.

    I don’t wanna have to look at a screen I’m covering with my hand to do things *while I drive*, after all. I don’t need nearly as much attention or eye-traffic on it if there’s a knob, and a parallel one on the wheel.

    And all of that beats a *bad* touch screen UI. This means you, Toyota and Honda.)

  • avatar

    Give me a console with knobs and buttons that I can operate with a gloved hand. Volvo seems to understand this.

    Barring that, I’d prefer a touchscreen interface over a single-knob a la iDrive—but only if the touchscreen responds to the right amount of pressure consistently and there was no delay transitioning between the screens… are you reading this Toyota/Subaru?

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    As a slightly past middle aged fart, I can’t see up close very well, so any screen close enough for me to touch is blurry. A knob is better because the screen can be farther away.

  • avatar
    George B

    I’ll accept touch screens if they’re combined with more intelligent use of steering wheel buttons. On my car, steering wheel controls always select among radio station presets in memory even when you’re in “tune” mode on the touchscreen. Better programming would let me use those buttons to tune the radio instead of forcing me to try to hold my hand steady and repeatedly touch a spot on the touch screen. There are SiriusXM stations I’ve never listened to simply because it’s unsafe to tune to them when driving.

  • avatar

    I’m pretty happy with the touch screen in my FR-S. I rarely actually use the touch screen. The buttons on each side do all the heavy lifting.

  • avatar

    My G8 and it’s awful interior is devoid of these modern problems. Buttons, lots of nicely laid out buttons.

  • avatar

    Porsche PCM has both.

  • avatar

    Most of the features available in these complicated touch-screen and/or knob+screen interfaces aren’t something people should be configuring while driving. If it’s a complicated interface with lots of intricate options, then a touch-screen can be better, but it shouldn’t be for things you configure while driving.

    If it’s something appropriate for adjusting while driving, then a knob is the most complicated a person can reasonably handle. AND that knob (or button) should be the complete extent of the interface with no LCD screen at all. For example, pushing a pre-set button on my radio pops the previous button out and make the pushed button stay in. I can feel and hear the button action; there’s no need for any other feedback.

  • avatar

    I view it as such, in a cheap product I would have just one screen and everything in it would be digital simply because that’s cheaper and easier. But as I go up the product line, I should get BUTTONS and a screen with digital controls. I get additional OPTIONS as I spend money.

  • avatar

    Infiniti has offered touchscreen and knob on the G37,and still offers that combo.

  • avatar

    IMO Infiniti does a good job of both touch screen and buttons and knobs.

  • avatar

    We all like buttons, but if I had buttons for all the functions, I’d have to have a zillion buttons. I’d rather have a touchscreen than a zillion buttons.

    But then I really only use one button for anything advanced. I press it and then verbally tell the car what I want. It does it.

    My car also has a few touch sensitive buttons. That’s just stupid.

    • 0 avatar

      What, you don’t wanna be greeted with this every time you get into your car?

      I have to wonder if there’s a rule against having controls on the ceiling of a vehicle. I’d love to get into my car and start flipping a million switches like the Millennium Falcon or something.

  • avatar

    If I can have a touchscreen with basic controls (radio/volume/cruise control) on the steering wheel I’ll be fine. I actually really appreciate the fisher price parts bin work in Scion for this reason alone. You get 3 knobs for HVAC, hot/cold, fan 1-4, and directions. The radio head is nice, a bit dated now, but sufficient.

    If I could have updated to the newer touchscreen I would gladly because I have no problem using my steering controls and THEN at a stop light or otherwise able to reasonable look down handle that. Don’t deny, 90% of us use our smartphones for basic GPS stuff while moving. I would much rather have it in my dash and voice activated ala SYNC.

  • avatar

    I prefer physical controls that I can identify by feel without taking my eyes off the road. That said, I understand that the complexity of today’s infotainment systems requires interfaces with too numerous menus and buttons to make it practical or safe to operate via physical buttons. A balance is good – physical buttons, sliders, and knobs for critical and frequently used functions, and virtual controls for the remainder.

    I find the Lexus interface is actually not bad, once you I got used to it. It is actually most similar to a joystick, not a mouse. The difference is significant – with a joystick, the physical limits of its range of motion correspond to the physical boundaries of the screen. That, with the haptic feedback that increases resistance as one moves the joystick away from buttons on the screen, makes it easy to select functions by feel with minimum looking away from the road.

    I’ve used touchscreens, too, and find I tend to look away from the road for longer periods when operating them, since I have to stare at it while locating the desired virtual button, positioning my finger, and pressing my finger. Since it’s hard to keep my hand steady while reaching several feet to the dashboard to find and press buttons, I have to focus intently on the task of controlling the infotainment system, which is dangerous. With the joystick, I can rest my hand on it, and repeatedly glance at the screen for a moment to see what I’m pointing to, look back at the road while positioning the joystick, look at the screen a moment to see if I’m yet pointing correctly at the desired button, etc. Once properly positioned, I hit a physical button next to the joystick, which can be found by feel, to perform the function.

  • avatar

    I much prefer to have neither – my “old” BMW does everything I need it to do infotainment wise with two knobs, a row of buttons and a three line dot matrix display.

    But if I HAVE to have this mess, then a knob for sure. Touchscreens in cars should be banned. They all suck. Of the knob interfaces I have used, the latest BMW iDrive with the touchpad controller is pretty good. Buttons for all the common screens, you can write on the top of the knob with your finger, and the voice control is pretty good too. But BMW is about to ruin it by adding touch to the screen as well.

    My least favorite is the Audi version in the current A4. Ugh. And what idiot thought putting the volume knob on the passenger side of the center console beyond the shifter was a good idea?

  • avatar

    Knobs and buttons are much better. Using tactile memory is much easier and it keeps your eyes on the road where it should be. I like a knob on the radio for tuning and another for volume. Also rotary controls for climate control that were popularized with the first generation Ford Taurus. I also worry about the long term durability of the touch screens. Will they still be holding up in another 10 to 15 years? Probably not. Keep the maps and GPS separate from all the other stuff. Many of the touch screens and other interfaces aren’t all that intuitive anyway such as the Ford My Sync. Simple is better.

  • avatar
    GS 455

    Here on the Canadian prairies where it routinely gets to minus 30 C I don’t want to have to take my gloves off every time I want to change a setting on a touch screen. A system of knob and buttons can be used while wearing gloves. Audi has a great system that I was able to figure out just by playing with the knob for a few minutes. (I hate how that sounds)

  • avatar


  • avatar

    The navigation software on my iPhone works the same way in every car I get into, and works darn well in every state and country I’ve been to this year. It’s also my music / podcast / books-on-tape device.

    If you have more than one car, or drive rental cars with any frequency, it’s just not worth it to even learn the various screen-controlled systems in a current-model car.

    The question is whether the car you’re in will let you ignore its screen. There is a special circle of hell for engineers who decided that HVAC systems needed to be controlled from a screen. Buttons and knobs worked just fine.

  • avatar

    Why can’t this website keep me logged in? (Better than the forum though, where logging in doesn’t mean that I can ever successfully post.)

    That video is Dave Coleman (from Mazda USA) explaining to journalists how they designed their infotainment system. It’s 23 minutes long and he sounds like he has a cold so I don’t blame you if you don’t want to watch it.

    He says they tested different options and were terrified by how long people took their eyes off the road when using touchscreens. That’s why they lock out the touchscreen when you’re driving (though it’s easily defeated by downloading some code onto an SD card). For most commands you have a knob and a small number of buttons (at different elevations) that you can use without looking, and scrolling past all the options does not loop around to the beginning so that you can scroll all the way to one end and go back a step in order to select the 2nd-last item without looking.

    They selected the screen location, text size, number of lines of text at any one time (7), line spacing, etc. based on making the refocus and reading time as short as possible. That’s why the screen is so high up that raising the dash up around it would look stupid so they didn’t bother (also, they wanted to keep the dash low).

    It’s not perfect – it takes a few steps to do anything – but the thought process behind it sounds logical to me.

  • avatar

    My first-series Sable had only knobs and buttons, of course. What was wonderful, was that each knob and button had a unique texture (for example, each window control button had a different pattern of raised dots). With a little experience, I could operate everything without taking my eyes off the road. Does any manufacturer still do this?

  • avatar

    Doug’s article begins with the Passat but he fails to mention that the Passat has a combination knob and touchscreen scenario. My decision to acquire the Golf R over others was teh fact that it had a knob for volume, touch screen for others. It’s a good blend.

    I just drove a Cadillac XTS and was presented with no knobs…all touch screen. I understand how use over time would enable me to ajust but I ended up using the steering wheel button controls over the touch menu system, and came away decidedly against and all touch screen and touch/button (no press,but button like surface activation).

    Couple thoughts:

    A knob for Volume – ideal – it’s immediate and wheels to a level that is sought after without you ever taking your eyes off the road – why do safes have dials for accuracy and not touch screens – many reasons I imagine but one is the level of accuracy I’m sure. Further, How do you reach the touch screen and adjust volume without looking at it? At 70mph its an unnecessary risk and an extremely common function.

    A knob for Air/Heat Fan – to get comfortable, while driving, a knob is best to adjust the speed of the fan. How does a touch screen to adjust the speed of a fan through a shared menu system make any sense?

    Touch Screen for Sound Adjustment – ok, perhaps a case can be made for reducing the clutter- functions such as treble, base, fade, are typically set now and then. Finding these and adjusting through the touch screen menus.

    If it were up to me the screen would be a display but buttons activate functions. I really liked the 2009 Mercedes Benz knobs/buttons + Display…now it has a multi-function knob/spinning wheel and touch screen…no likey. Many many presses to get anywhere and you have to take your eyes off the road.

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