The digital button: Flash in the pan?

Is the latest trend in automotive HMI design a positive step forwards, or headed for a fast flameout?

A side-by-side comparison of the button panel of the 8-inch and upgrade 9.2-inch screen on the Golf Mk 7.5

It’s a small detail. It’s just a button. And a knob. Used to flip from the radio to Spotify, or the music on your phone. Or simply turn the volume up and down. Yet driving the new Volkswagen Golf (Mk 7.5) the other week emphasised a view that we’ve held for some time now, that this small thing is a critically important part of the current in-car user experience.

Across the industry, we’re moving towards the era of the digital button. The physical ones — that actually move when you press them — are dying out. Today, modernity is represented by a button that sits underneath the glass panel of the screen, and doesn’t physically move. Apple have a lot to answer for.

The new standard interface in the Golf 7.5

In the new Golf, the standard-fit centre screen is now an 8-inch display, complete with digital shortcut buttons flanking its left- and right-hand sides — and two physical knobs which puncture through the glass surface allowing adjustment of volume on one side, and map zooming or track-skipping on the other. It’s an impressive unit, but harder to use on the move than the old screen from the Golf 7 — with its physical menu shortcut buttons.

The old Golf 7 "Pro" Unit — with physical shortcut buttons and control knobs

However, at least the basic screen retains its physical volume and scoll knobs. The new Golf’s ‘upgrade option’ centre screen — the one VW will ask buyers to pay more for — grows to 9.2-inches, bringing with it gesture control, but most significantly, completely drops the physical knobs. The shortcut buttons are reconfigured into a stack of five-digital buttons down the left-hand screen edge, two of which control the volume. This set up looks more digital, more modern, but it’s far harder to use on the move. It does not represent progress. Yet for brands like VW, the technology represents a win-win. Not having to include physical buttons saves production costs. Yet this “bigger, better” unit is an upgrade they can charge more for.

The new, 9.2-inch "Pro" unit, with an all-glass front, and no physical buttons

The expressly digital visage the 9.2-inch unit creates in the centre console is appealing. We’d bet plenty of customers will choose to pay the upgrade in the showroom. But three years down the line, will they still be happy? Will they see it as progress over the physical buttons of their old car? And ultimately, will this digital button trend be a flash in the pan?

A few weeks ago, Automotive news ran an Op/Ed piece, pleading with OEMs to bring back the ‘button or knob’ to reduce the risks of screens distracting drivers. Just like others who have gone heavily towards screen based interfaces — Peugeot, Ford et al. — we wouldn’t bet against VW stepping back from its fully digitised interface a generation down the line.

Posted by Joe Simpson


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