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Hallelujah! Hyundai vows to resist modern trend for all-digital cabins and keep using buttons and dials | Opinion

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Hyundai is pushing against the modern trend to replace every button and dial with a touchscreen.
Hyundai is pushing against the modern trend to replace every button and dial with a touchscreen.

Car companies have been increasingly using digital screens and soft-touch buttons in modern cars to save costs while looking ‘hi-tech’ - but Hyundai has committed to fight this trend for as long as possible.

Speaking at the launch of the new-generation Hyundai Kona, Sang Yup Lee, Head of Hyundai Design, said the new model deliberately uses physical buttons and dials for many of the controls, specifically air-conditioning and the sound system. Lee said this is because the move to digital screens is often more dangerous, as it often requires multiple steps and means drivers have to take their eyes off the road to see where they need to press.

“We have used the physical buttons quite significantly the last few years,” Lee said. “For me, the safety-related buttons have to be a hard key.”

He added: “When you’re driving it’s hard to control it, this is why when it’s a hard key it’s easy to sense and feel it.”

Asked if Hyundai is committed to retain physical buttons in future models, Lee said that was his preference but did concede that will change when cars become more autonomous.

“We will continue to have [physical dials],” he said. “When it comes to Level 4 autonomous driving, then we’ll have everything soft key, but until then, as I said, when it comes to driving it’s safest to have your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel.”

This is a significant decision from Hyundai, as the trend towards ‘cleaner’ interiors with more screens has moved to a potentially dangerous level. Too many modern cars require complicated, multi-stage sequences of virtual button pushing in order to do what should be simple tasks. For example, some modern cars with digital screens can require three steps on a digital screen just to change the temperature of the air-conditioning half a degree.

It’s all well and good for car designers to create these very stylish cabins with tablet-style displays, that I’m sure appeal to a generation that have grown up with smartphones and iPads, but from a functionality point-of-view, are simply inappropriate for a car.

The new-generation Hyundai Kona uses physical buttons and dials for many of the controls.
The new-generation Hyundai Kona uses physical buttons and dials for many of the controls.

When you’re driving you need to keep your eyes on the road, not scrolling through multiple memory pages. The police, quite rightly, have spent years cracking down on mobile phone use in cars because they’re distracting and can cause accidents. The car industry’s solution has largely been to simply create an in-built smartphone or tablet - thus circumnavigating the letter of the law but re-creating the problem and making driving unnecessarily dangerous.

Another key issue is that car companies aren’t swapping buttons for screens because they believe it’s safer, it’s because it’s cheaper. A screen may look nice and premium but the reality is it saves complexity and therefore money.

I’m not saying all screens are bad and must be eliminated. But as Lee said, the ‘safety-related’ controls need to remain operated by a physical button or dial. And by 'safety-related', Lee explained he meant fundamental controls such as the air-con and stereo. 

Yes, the time will come when autonomous driving technology will allow the driver more freedom and flexibility in the cabin to take their eyes off the road more, but that day is still some way off in the future and until then I hope more car companies take the same view as Hyundai and stick with the safer choice.

Stephen Ottley
Contributing Journalist
Steve has been obsessed with all things automotive for as long as he can remember. Literally, his earliest memory is of a car. Having amassed an enviable Hot Wheels and Matchbox collection as a kid he moved into the world of real cars with an Alfa Romeo Alfasud. Despite that questionable history he carved a successful career for himself, firstly covering motorsport for Auto Action magazine before eventually moving into the automotive publishing world with CarsGuide in 2008. Since then he's worked for every major outlet, having work published in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age,, Street Machine, V8X and F1 Racing. These days he still loves cars as much as he did as a kid and has an Alfa Romeo Alfasud in the garage (but not the same one as before... that's a long story).
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