#TechThursday – Losing Control

  Lindsey Schutters


 30 Jan, 2020

Physical Buttons in Electric Vehicles

Car manufacturers are waging war on knobs, handles and buttons, and Lindsey Schutters won’t stand for it.

It was the middle of a varsity Quake tournament where I first noticed that the virtual world dulls our senses. Another player kept respawning as either “TST” or “SML,” he later explained that those are the two things you can’t do to him in the game. Technically you can’t touch opposing players in a game either. Computers really don’t like to be touched and carmakers know this.

Even the sensible Swedes fell foul of the anti-tactile tactics when Volvo inexplicably hid the climate controls in the Sensus screen on the otherwise excellent XC90 and every new model since. I didn’t want to believe that Land Rover would pull that trick on its generally tech-challenged vehicles, but the Range Rover Velar kicked off the future vision of button removal that extends to the forthcoming Land Rover Defender – itself a long-standing middle finger to the onward march of technological innovation.

But there is hope and it comes in a painfully flawed package. Honda is renowned for producing challenging digital user interfaces and produced its Sistine Chapel of complex screens in the Honda E electric car. Early reviews coming out of last week’s international launch in Spain paint a scene of overindulgent displays, but also detail the generous use of physical buttons.

Actual buttons in an EV! What sorcery is this?

Actual switchgear isn’t a common sight in futuristic EVs and is in keeping with the E’s retro styling. It’s like the Honda engineers spent a weekend spotting CTIs in the Cape Town CBD and immediately got to work on a concept. And that concept proved to be light on battery capacity and driving range, but heavy on UI navigation flexibility.

Buttons are great for reaching out and touching while keeping your eyes on the road. You learn the layout of your car and bonus points for dials and knobs with haptic response as you adjust a setting. The killer feature of the iPhone, for instance, is the physical mute switch. There’s a simple beauty in a tactile control that can’t be comprehended until its gone.

Computers don’t like to be touched and that creates a critical distance between humans and machines. Buttons bridge that divide, allowing our analogous existence to merge with our digital avatars. There’s power in the press and we can’t let that human touch be taken from us.

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