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

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

opinion let s come to a dtente about screens in cars

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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2 of 59 comments
  • 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.

  • Saeed Hello, I need a series of other accessories from Lincoln. Do you have front window, front and rear lights, etc. from the 1972 and 1976 models
  • Probert Wow - so many digital renders - Ford, Stellantis. - whose next!!! They're really bringing it on....
  • Zerocred So many great drives:Dalton Hwy from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle.Alaska Marine Highway from Bellingham WA to Skagway AK. it was a multi-day ferry ride so I didn’t actually drive it, but I did take my truck.Icefields Parkway from Jasper AB to Lake Louise AB, CA.I-70 and Hwy 50 from Denver to Sacramento.Hwy 395 on the east side of the Sierras.
  • Aidian Holder I'm not interested in buying anything from a company that deliberately targets all their production in crappy union-busting states. Ford decided to build their EV manufaturing in Tennessee. The company built it there because of an anti-union legal environment. I won't buy another Ford because of that. I've owned four Fords to date -- three of them pickups. I'm shopping for a new one. It won't be a Ford Lightning. If you care about your fellow workers, you won't buy one either.
  • Denis Jeep have other cars?!?