Why cars should keep their knobs, dials and buttons

Apple has got a lot to answer for. First of all it introduced the iPod and that immediately became the MP3 player of choice for those that knew what an MP3 was. You could identify the buyers easily thanks to their white earphones, at the same time creating a very visible target for those small-brained idiots who think it is fine to remove property from somebody else by force.

Then they brought out the iPhone. Now on its fifth iteration, even now there are few blocks of aluminium and glass that feel quite so good in the hand. Apple almost singlehandedly created the touch screen smartphone market, reaping the multi-billion dollar rewards on the way.CHAL Banner

Car manufacturers noticed this, as they tend to do, and started installing special iPhone and iPod docks in their cars. It made it so easy to hook your phone up to the car, use the hands free capability and stream your music from your Apple device over your car’s Bose speakers.

There was only one problem. Right now, Apple has around a 20% share of the smartphone market, which means that 80% of the market doesn’t have a device that will plug in to the helpfully installed sockets and plugs.

There’s a BMW outside my window with a specific dock for an iPhone 4. Wonderful, if only I had an iPhone 4. Instead I’ve gone and got myself an Android-based phone that is so generic I can’t remember who made it.

Fortunately more cars are now coming with Aux inputs, or a headphone-like socket to many. That at least means I can use my phones music storage ability to ease long journeys, allowing an easy transition from Guns n Roses to Mexican Knights and then on to The Sunsets.

Of course it does still mean I can’t make a hands-free phone call. The BMW, for example, might have the iPhone option, but there’s no Bluetooth for the rest of us.

I feel excluded, left behind, and it’s all Apple’s fault.

It’s not that issue that I feel strongly about though, but rather Apple’s admittedly genius user interface on the iPad.

Tesla Model X 2013 DashboardWhile BMW tried to simplify the array of buttons on a dashboard using the iDrive, a device that started out life being near unusable but is now good enough to be fitted to the latest Rolls-Royce Wraith, more and more manufacturers have seen how much money they could save on tooling and manufacturing simply by shoving a whacking great big touch screen in the middle of the dashboard.

Buyers too have looked on with envious eyes, seeing a seven inch fondleslab as a highlight of technical achievement, a sign that any car fitted with a plain black rectangle suddenly becomes ‘premium’.

Well stop it, it’s not.

They are only being installed for two reasons. One, the marketing people at any given manufacturer have realised that people like them and told the designers they need to put them in.

Secondly, and far more importantly, the engineering bean counters have looked at the costs involved and realised just how much money can be saved.

You might think an iPad is expensive, but a touch screen LCD really isn’t. You can buy one from Maplin for less than a couple of hundred pounds. With a little bit of software and some wiring, you can then control pretty much every function of the car from the screen.

Compare that to the potential cost of tooling up to produce 50 different buttons, the mechanisms behind them to make them pop in and out properly, the amount of wiring needed to get the signals to the right parts of the car, the little LED lights behind to light it all up at night, and so on.

So touch screens are wanted by buyers and manufacturers, and they’re cheaper than buttons. This really is a win-win-win situation, surely?

Tesla Model X 2013 InteriorWell, no, for one simple reason. They’re positively dangerous.

When I’m driving along in 15 year old SAAB, I can turn the stereo up and down, change channel, adjust the air conditioning, stick the heated rear window on and turn the heated seats on without even glancing towards the dashboard.

It’s all tactile. I can feel which buttons I’m pressing or feel when the sliders stop moving. I turn a knob one way and the music gets louder, spin it the other and it gets quieter. I can even reprogram the stored channels without looking at the stereo.

Never do I need to take my eyes from the road in front of me, not even for a split second.

Think how difficult it is to change some settings on your phone, but imagine how much harder it would be to do that while only taking split second glances at it. Now imagine trying to do that at 70 mph while your phone bounces up and down as you go over bumps and round corners.

It can’t be done, you have to look, not glance, at the screen to see what you’re doing and what you’re pressing. And when you do look, imagine that’s when a car pulls out of a driveway.

Sometimes doing things the old way just works better.

[button link=”http://www.contracthireandleasing.com/car-leasing-news/why-cars-should-keep-their-knobs-dials-and-buttons/” rel=”nofollow” color=”orange”]This article was first published at ContractHireAndLeasing.com on 22 April 2013.[/button]

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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, DAD.info and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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