Automakers and Drivers Agree: Buttons and Smart Surfaces Beat Touch Screens

May 17, 2023

From the simplicity of the first steering wheel to the complexity of full in-vehicle entertainment systems, there’s a history of innovation in automotive that can take us too far – or return us to greater balance between humans and machines.

The most successful Human Machine Interfaces (HMI) offer ease and balance, which is why automakers are starting to integrate touch-sensitive Smart Surfaces over the increasingly complex user interfaces of touch screens.

If you prefer simple buttons to touch screens; you’re not alone. A recent Slate article: The Glorious Return of a Humble Car Feature chronicles the rise of a consumer ‘revolt’ against touch screens and declares: “Buttons are back!”

UltraSense Systems builds Smart Surfaces that are more like buttons than screens, for several reasons:

  1. Touch is powerful. Each fingertip has thousands of touch receptors, allowing humans to pick up subtle changes in texture, proximity or vibration – without having to engage other senses. For decades, vehicle manufacturers have placed buttons in locations drivers can feel without removing eyes from the road or hands from the wheel.

  2. Buttons just work. The function of a well-placed and well-labeled button is quickly understood, leading to a smooth user experience. Early in-vehicle touch screens offered exciting driving tools like directions and backup cameras. But as more and more features were added, vehicles’ dashboard touch screens began to look more like smartphones, with apps for texting, video and even gaming.

  3. Today’s touch screens have gone too far. They require multiple senses for operation – vision, auditory and tactile – creating more distracted driving. And voice prompt capability is not alleviating the ways complex touch screens cost us safety, time and money. Here are examples:
    • Safety: In March 2020, The Future of Transport found 30-36% slower reaction times for drivers using the voice-controlled Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, versus undistracted drivers. For context, a driver with an illegal blood-alcohol limit had a problematic 12% delay time in the same study; drivers using voice prompts performed nearly 3x worse!
    • Time: In a test of 12 vehicles by Vi Bilagare, drivers using the physical controls and buttons of a 2005 Volvo were able to perform four tasks in 10 seconds, while those using cars with touch screens took 20 to 45 seconds to complete the same four tasks (adjusting temperature, radio, trip odometer and lighting controls).
    • Money. Now that most drivers own smartphones, fewer want higher costs of maintenance for vehicles with complex touch screens that require software updates and IT troubleshooting. The J.D. Power 2023 U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study sees ‘issues with infotainment systems’ high on the list of complaints about long-term durability.

Bringing Buttons Back – the Challenge and Opportunity

While buttons can fare better than touch screens for driver safety and durability, traditional mechanical buttons have their problems, too. The cluster of mechanical buttons in gasoline vehicles (even early 2020 models) can be ugly and overwhelming. Plus, many buttons are seldom or ever used in the lifetime of the vehicle. In contrast, the interior design aesthetic of today’s electric vehicles can be described as clean, modern, minimalistic and simple.

Further, mechanical buttons wear out, have crevices that are hard to clean, and add weight. They don’t fit with modern automakers’ needs for sustainability and more streamlined design.


Like Buttons, but Better

We agree with bringing buttons back to the driving experience, but not the same mechanical buttons that are problematic for drivers, automakers, and OEMs. Instead, UltraSense Systems is building In-Plane Sensing solutions for solid-state Smart Surfaces. These solutions:
• Leverage the power of human touch
• Use multi-mode touch technology to definitively detect a touch and eliminate false triggers
• Include the ability to light up function icons only when needed
• Offer the tactile feeling and response of a button without the need for drivers to look at what they are touching


Smart Surface HMI – the Better ‘Button’

With UltraSense In-Plane Sensing, the Smart Surface HMI is built into the steering wheel, button panel or door handle, enhancing driver control with what feels and acts like buttons – only with the added benefit of customizable haptics. Remember the human finger has thousands of receptors to sense subtle variations? Haptics communicate through touch, without requiring drivers to remove their eyes from the road.

The UltraSense In-Plane Sensing solution also benefits manufacturers and OEMs with reduced costs of manufacturing, fewer part numbers, reduced plastic use, decreased weight, slimmer form factor, and elimination of the aging and false trigger risks of mechanical buttons.


Use Cases – The Touch Experience of the Future

To better sense the potential of UltraSense In-Plane Sensing solutions for automotive, see our Use Cases and Video Demos page, or click to play the videos in this blog. We think you’ll agree there’s ample potential for a smarter, safer, more sustainable and all-around ‘better button.’

We’re glad to be working with automotive manufacturers today for the driving experience of the future. Look for cars with UltraSense Systems technology in early 2024.

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