Opinion: Let's Come to A Détente About Screens in Cars

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

Motor 1's John Neff recently wrote a screed defending the proliferation of screens in cars, and as he anticipated in his concluding paragraph, his take went over about as well as a stinky release of flatulence during high tea with the royal family.

Automotive enthusiasts and journalists, as well as consumers, pushed back hard, at least from what I saw on the socials.

As for me, I read his piece and thought some of his arguments were reasonable, but I also have over a decade of testing vehicles under my belt and hard experience has taught me a few lessons.

It's also helped me figure out what I like -- and that's a mix of knobs and screens.

Give me a volume knob and a tuning knob*. Give me knobs or easy-to-use buttons for the main climate controls -- temp and fan speed -- and make it easy to turn on the heated seats and heated steering wheel. Basically, make it easy for me to turn on/off certain often-used features, especially at speed.

I'm fine with having lesser-used features be accessible only via screen, as long there's not too much menu-diving required.

*I still don't get why so many automakers want to get rid of tuning knobs. Do people just set presets and forget them? What about road trips? What about people who just like to surf the dial? Not to mention the range of satellite radio stations -- imagine if you like rock, country, sports, and comedy. That's a lot of station-scrolling, and too many stations to save as presets. Yes, I know there are some other ways to tune, and yes there are usually steering wheel controls, but just gimme the knob, man.

Neff rightly points out that some cars do buttons poorly, and some do screens poorly. But instead of debating knobs vs buttons, can't we just compromise?

Some vehicles, of course, do this well. Ford's Bronco is but one example, and Stellantis has some examples, and so forth and so on. I chose the Bronco because some trims have a screen integrated into the dash with volume, tuning, and climate-control knobs right below. You can see it in the image above, though Ford's pic cut off the screen.

Look -- knobs have some advantages, the primary one being that they can be easier to use at speed. Screens can be distracting to use and are also likely expensive to fix if they break out of warranty. But screens also look cool and can be used to do things that knobs and buttons can't. Or to add info -- like the off-road pages Jeep uses.

All I am saying here is that you don't need to take sides in this debate. You don't have to be a "screen person" or a "knob stan". Just root for good interior design -- and in my view, good interior design can and does integrate both screen and knob. Good design also avoids having the screen look like a glued-on iPad, but I digress.

Screens are here to stay. But that doesn't mean we can't keep knobs around for some functions. Now, let's talk about haptic touch...

[Image: Ford]

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Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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  • Dave M. Dave M. on Mar 08, 2023

    Great piece. After 10 years I'm still madly in love with my aged Outback, however as I shop for its replacement I took the new Outback off the plate. 1) There's no hybrid option. 2) I shouldn't have to go through screens to get to seat heating/cooling settings. 3) Not sure what they were aiming for visually with the 2023 refresh, but the wheel surrounds and front bumper are hideous.

    • Carsofchaos Carsofchaos on Mar 10, 2023

      Agreed on those hideous wheel surrounds and the Outback isn't the only vehicle doing it. I imagine in about 2 years when those are out of fashion there will be a great deal of business done with aftermarket kits to delete those hideous things.

  • Master Baiter Master Baiter on Mar 08, 2023

    My new Macan has pretty good ergonomics: The screen is actually integrated into the dash and there are knobs and physical buttons for important functions. The center console has some haptic switches, but they seem to work OK, and have the advantage of not collecting dust and debris that can accumulate in the crevices around mechanical switches.

  • Lorenzo Subaru had the ideal wagon - in 1995. The Legacy Outback was a straight two-box design with rear quarter and back windows you could see out of, and was available in brown with a 5-speed manual, as God and TTAC commenters intended. It's nice they're not raising prices, but when you've lost the plot, does it matter?
  • Bkojote Remember a month a go when Cleveland wanted to create a more walkable Cleveland and TTAC's 'BIG GOVERNMENT IS THE PROBLEM' dumbest and dullest all collectively crapped their diapers? Here's the thing- look on any American highway and it's littered with people who don't /want/ to be driving or shouldn't be. Look at every Becky on her phone during the morning commute in her Tucson, look at every Brad aggro driving his 84 month loan GMC. Hell look how many drivers nowadays can't even operate a headlight switch. You expect these people to understand a stoplight? In my neighborhood alone 4 people have been rear ended at lights from someone on their phone. Distracted driving over the past 10 years has spiked, and it's only going to get worse unless Becky has an alternative, because no judge is going to pull her license when 'she needs it to get to work!' but heaven forbid she not check fb/tiktok for 40 minutes a day.
  • Scott Shouldn't the The Italian Minister for Business be criticizing The Milano for being too ugly to be Italian?Better use of resources doing that....
  • Steve Biro Frankly, while I can do without Eyesight and automatic start-stop, there is generally less B-S with Subarus in terms of design, utility and off-road chops than with many other brands. I just hope that when they adopt Toyota’s hybrid system, they’ll also use Toyota’s eCVT.
  • The Oracle These are all over the roads in droves here in WNC. Rarely see one on the side of the road, they are wildly popular, capable, and reliable. There is a market for utilitarian vehicles.