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What's wrong with physical buttons? Car brands are turning dashboards into mobile computers - and it sucks | Opinion

The Volkswagen Golf 8 does away with most physical buttons – and not to good effect.

Let me be clear right from the beginning - I’m not a Luddite. I enjoy and embrace technology, and believe it has played a significant role in the advancement of both humankind in general, but the automobile in particular.

But, I simply can’t stand this modern infatuation with removing as many buttons as possible inside modern cars. For the past decade, carmakers have seemingly become obsessed with replacing as many buttons, dials and switches as they can and swapping them out for screens.

It’s something that has been troubling me for some time, and it reached its zenith a few years ago when BMW launched its ‘gesture controls’ that pushed the limits of common sense.

This was the future, we were told. You could answer a call with the swipe of a hand or turn the radio up by twirling your finger in the air. Putting aside the fact that you look a bit silly doing this, these key functions were already available via buttons on the steering wheel. It was easier, quicker and, most of all, safer to control the volume or answer a call by simply pushing the button.

But this was just the next step from the move away from physical buttons towards more touchscreen panels, with Tesla once again being the catalyst for an industry-wide change. It began this change when it introduced its Model S with a massive screen smack-bang in the middle of the dashboard controlling everything from brake regeneration to the radio station.

The recent launch of the new-generation Ford Ranger highlights this trend. The new Ranger features a huge central touchscreen that looks more like an iPad than something to control air-conditioning and the radio.

In Ford’s defence, several key functions are still controlled via physical buttons, but the fact that a once humble, working-class vehicle like the Ranger has morphed into a technological showcase demonstrates just how far this desire to move away from genuine switchgear to virtual ones has taken root in the industry.

Ask car company personnel and they will give you a spiel about the greater functionality of touchscreens and the flexibility it gives to customers. What they don’t typically say is that it saves money because it’s often cheaper to have a single screen controlled by software, rather than dozens of complicated buttons and dials.

But it annoys me for two key reasons - safety and style.

Safety is obviously the most important factor when any design decision is made on a car. The decision to move towards more screens flies in the face of what we’re being told about safety.

For years now, road safety authorities have been telling us to get off our smartphones when we’re behind the wheel. With good reason, they can be incredibly distracting when you drive as you often have to scroll through multiple menus and because they are touchscreen you need to look where you are placing your finger.

And yet, that’s what most of these new touchscreens inside cars are - giant smartphones. In many cases, literally, thanks to the widespread adoption of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. While the functionality of these car-based programs is slightly different, simplified and featuring larger icons, it still requires more attention than you typically find when using good, old-fashioned buttons and dials.

Which brings me to my second frustration about the decline of conventional switchgear - the style factor.

In years gone by, the design and functionality of switchgear was a way for carmakers to make a statement. The more prestigious and luxurious a car, the finer the switchgear - real metals and detailed gauges and instruments.

This led to some truly beautiful cars, whereas now more and more makes and models are starting to look similar as they remove more unique features and replace them with generic touchscreens.

Of course, the reality is nothing will change. The move towards less buttons and more digitisation has not only begun but is well-advanced. And as history shows, you can’t stop progress - as the Luddites will tell you.