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Safety: Touchscreen Commands Under Scrutiny by European Regulators

2023 Kia Sportage PHEV | Photo: D.Boshouwers
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Daniel Rufiange
All those commands going on-screen is increasing the level of driver distraction

•   Europe's car safety authorities may soon be looking at touchscreens and on-screen controls.

If you follow the automotive industry at all, you know that touchscreens and on-screen commands are all the rage. Car designers are addicted to removing clutter, i.e. physical buttons. Which means moving more and more commands into on-screen menus. 

It's been said over and over again that, in many cases, doing so leads to increased driver distraction. It's becoming a safety issue that’s hard and harder to ignore.

The European New Car Assessment Program (Euro NCAP), the main body responsible for crash safety on the old continent, plans to introduce new components to its tests as of 2026. These would rate vehicles more favourably if they have physical buttons and switches, rather than on-screen commands or touch-sensitive “buttons”, for certain essential commands.

To obtain maximum points in Euro NCAP crash tests, carmakers will thus have to reduce the number of touch and on-screen commands inside their vehicles. Initially, the focus will be on five key functions: indicators, hazard lights, wipers, emergency call and the horn. 

2024 Subaru Outback Onyx
2024 Subaru Outback Onyx | Photo: D.Boshouwers

That’s fine but we feel it could go further. In most newer models, these controls are still activated by physical buttons. More needs to be done, especially for controls such as heated seats, climate control, heated steering wheel and a/c intensity. 

We could even add headlights. With the most recent generation of Chevrolet Colorado (and GMC Sierra), we were flabbergasted to find that to activate the headlights or low beams, you had to go through the multimedia screen.

According to Matthew Avery, Director of Strategic Development at Euro NCAP, the problem is significant. He told The Times newspaper that:

“The overuse of touchscreens is an industry-wide problem, with almost every vehicle-maker moving key controls onto central touchscreens, obliging drivers to take their eyes off the road and raising the risk of distraction crashes.”

- Matthew Avery, Euro NACP

2024 Hyundai Ioniq 5
2024 Hyundai Ioniq 5 | Photo: D.Boshouwers

Euro NCAP tests are voluntary, it should be pointe out. Still, most major European automakers submit to them and use them to highlight the safety level of their models. We can expect them to make the necessary adjustments to improve their scores. Poor results in new tests would not be good for their image. 

And we can imagine that if changes are made in Europe, they will follow in North America. At least, we can hope so. 

We've already seen some automakers backtrack on the rush to digitalization by bringing back physical controls. This is the case with Volkswagen, whose most recent generations of models feature more buttons for some basic commands.

2024 BMW i5
2024 BMW i5 | Photo: BMW
Daniel Rufiange
Daniel Rufiange
Automotive expert
  • Over 17 years' experience as an automotive journalist
  • More than 75 test drives in the past year
  • Participation in over 250 new vehicle launches in the presence of the brand's technical specialists