Out of touch: PH Blog

Who honestly thinks touch-operated technology in cars is a good idea? Well, car manufacturers for a start. With the honourable exception of Rolls-Royce, reasoning a smeary, fingerprint-stained screen is not an appropriate centrepiece for its dashboards. Bravo.

Ironically though a Rolls-Royce is probably the best possible car for a touchscreen interface, given the smooth ride at least gives you a fighting chance of connecting with the area of the screen you were aiming for. Remember that Jackass episode where a hapless tattooist attempted to give Steve-O a new adornment in the back of a Hummer being driven at speed across a bumpy desert floor by Henry Rollins? That's sometimes how appropriate trying to operate a touchscreen system in a car with fashionably sporty suspension feels to me.

I don't envy the people designing these systems though. Phones have got us used to having the world at our fingertips. Only natural carmakers would seek to emulate that in some form. I can also see the attraction to designers for cleaning up interiors and reducing button counts. Something that fit McLaren's minimalist ethos but rather bit it on the backside with the early Iris systems in the 12C. All very well committing to bundling all the car's systems into one interface. But if that single component doesn't work properly you're screwed.

Thankfully I've not had any issues with the PH 570GT long-termer and I appreciate the way the portrait-oriented screen is positioned just a hand-span away from the wheel, meaning you don't have to move your eyes or fingers too far from more important duties (y'know, like driving) to operate it. Better that than a steering wheel festooned with buttons too - a definite cheer for the McLaren approach here, the clear message being it is for steering the car. Not tuning the radio.

Many Porsches, in contrast, combine both a heavy button count and a small screen placed low in the dash and an arm-stretch away to operate. Worst of both worlds, though if you've ever driven an old 911 you'll be aware 'ergonomics' has only entered the Porsche lexicon relatively recently. Credit to the new Panamerathough - its clean combination of button-free haptic controls on the centre console and a huge screen in the dash win on both style and function and, I have no doubt, will be rolled out across the rest of the range in due course.

BMW's early adoption of an on-trend, iPod style spin-and-press interface was controversial when it first launched in the 7 Series. But this head start has evolved into a system that now works really well and lets you scroll your way through complicated menus and systems with one eye on the screen and the other on the road, thankfully without Apache gunship pilot levels of eyeball dexterity. Consistency over a long period works here too - you can drive pretty much any BMW of the last decade or more and it works the same way. Unlike Audi, which seems to attempt reinvention with every new generation, meaning you have to learn from scratch with each new model.

I did like Mercedes' iDrive style Comand wheel too, though the E400 Coupe I'm currently in has (like others) gained a touchpad atop it. Many of the premium brands seem to love the idea of them but has anyone ever successfully scrawled anything meaningful into such a device, even at a standstill? Only the Lexus joy-stick thing is worse.

Surely voice or gesture control are the way to go then? Sorry, but I hate automated voice interaction. I hate it when phoning call centres and I've hated it in every car I've tried it. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned but conversing with machines makes me uncomfortable. Siri and I are not on speaking terms, put it that way.

I should probably reserve judgement on gesture control until I've tried using it. But I can't help thinking frantic hand movements while driving are a recipe for trouble. Not that it was much better back in the day of course, the tiny buttons on old-fashioned head units impossibly fiddly at their 80s peak. Ever tried using a graphic equaliser on the move? Exactly!

Time for a vote though. Who gets the tech interface in modern cars right? And who gets it wrong?




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Comments (170) Join the discussion on the forum

  • griffgrog 08 Aug 2017

    My 2015 Range Rover had the In Car tech from the 1980's. It was both woefully slow and really hard to use. Whoever thought that it would be a good idea to bury the heated seat function in a menu system....Grrrrr.

  • RenesisEvo 08 Aug 2017

    Shockingly, the new Honda NSX is abysmal. Half the time the screen was black, I couldn't fathom a way to wake it up or turn it on, just eventually it came to life. Wish it hadn't, the interface rivals the older Range Rover system for being out of date, it's deeply unresponsive and clunky - prodding the screen you have no idea if it's actually registered an input. This would be borderline acceptable in a 2005 Civic, not a hybrid supercar presenting itself as a technological tour de force.

  • BFleming 08 Aug 2017

    I've tried gesture control on the new 5 series, and something tells me you'd hate that too. It's 100% pointless & doesn't work well.

  • Nik Attard 08 Aug 2017

    One thing I have noticed with some of the modern cars, especially the 570GT and the Alfa Giulia is that you can't actually see them properly when wearing polarised sunglasses. I know, I know just take off the sunglasses right!

    One thing I can see happening is manufacturers moving back to plug and play options. Have the ability to update your in car tech by swapping out the screen much like it was done by swapping head units out. A lot easier said than done but if Android and Apple push deeper into car tech it could work.


  • milesr3 08 Aug 2017

    I find the command controller in my Merc very intuitive, supplemented by the few fixed buttons. I've never used the touchpad, apart from the middle button with a little bump on it to call up the radio sub-menu overlay on the navigation map.

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