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Touchscreens - the Emperor's New Clothes of the car world?

Touchscreens are the current doyen of in-car user interface. But the marketing dream of offering car occupants an iPad-like experience often comes crashing down against the reality of hurtling down a bumpy road in a fast-moving metal box.

Ford was one of the first companies to push towards touchscreen-driven controls with its Sync + MyFordTouch interface in the American market. But so problematic has this move proven, that Consumer Reports took several Ford cars off its recommended list. And now Ford has front ed up, said it’s learnt lessons and thus—in the new Mustang—reintroduced some buttons as a primary control method.

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HMI and in-car UX is a complex, changing area right now. Last week, we spent time in the new Peugeot 308 – a car whose interior is head and shoulders beyond previous Peugeots and thematically for more progressive than anything in the sector, with PQ (perceived quality) to rival the best.

But to use its touchscreen is to discover the real fly in the 308's experiential ointment. To simply adjust the climate control temperature or direct it at your feet rather than your head means to reach out your index finger (unsupported), touch an area of light (a digital button) to then enter an index and then another.

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Touchscreens then, feel like the Emperor’s new clothes. Hans Christian Anderson’s Emperor was promised a new suit invisible to those unfit for their positions, but ultimately left him walking through the streets with nary a stitch on his back. Is everyone so busy jumping on the touchscreen bandwagon that nobody is willing to put their hand up and say that they can't see the proverbial suit; to say that touchscreens are great on the smartphone in our pocket but really not great in a metal box hurtling though space? Or are they too afraid to speak out against the short-term marketing-led desire to push this technology? 

Just as having a mechanical dial on your phone would seem silly today, isn’t having a touchscreen as the central interface for most in-car secondary controls just as ill-advised?

One key issue with touchscreens is that they can make regular, repeat actions distracting and long-winded. Think about your behaviour in a car – you tend to repeat the same handful of things again and again when it comes to the secondary, non-driving activities. Chances are, you listen to the same two or three radio stations. You’ll probably call the same two or three people most of the time. And it’s likely that every second or third address input you make on the sat nav is for your home or office.

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So perhaps BMW (ironically a company that doesn’t use touchscreens) has a partial answer to the touchscreen issue, in the form of their current shortcut button solution. You can navigate all the in-car systems and media through the iDrive controller. But for the things you do most often, you simply save it to one of eight shortcut button. In times gone by, such buttons were simply for a series of radio station presents. But the killer move BMW has made here is to allow the assignment of pretty much any input or instruction you make in iDrive to a button. It’s not just radio stations, but a navigation destination, to a phone number, stored media, and right down to the way the car is set up.

Which means that, in the BMW I regularly drive, button 1 starts playing music automatically from my iPod, 2 dials my wife, 3 sets the sat nav to take me home, 4 switches to BBC radio 4… and so on. It’s a simple, old-tech solution, which means the need to shuttle through iDrive is rare because most things you ‘change’ are on the buttons. I can’t help wondering whether physical shortcut buttons could also provide a simple, if seemingly old-school solution, to many of the problems thrown up by the Emperor’s new clothes of in-car user interface.