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Are car touchscreens safe? Safety regulator lays down the law

From 2026, the crash-testing experts will strip safety points from cars that overly rely on touchscreens

The growth of the i-car touchscreen, both in terms of its physical size and the number of functions it controls, has been meteoric. From an early start (would it surprise you to know that the first touchscreen was fitted to a 1986 Buick Riviera? And yes, it was every bit as basic as you might imagine) the complexity and ability of the touchscreen has expanded with every new model, and while they started as glorified stereo interfaces and on-screen maps, touchscreens now control some of the most fundamental aspects of our cars.

Euro NCAP, the independent safety and crash-test expert organisation, wants to put a stop to all that. Or some of it, at least. NCAP has just put the world’s carmakers on notice, that from 2026 anyone who wants to score a maximum five-star safety rating will have to roll back their reliance on touchscreens.

Euro NCAP’s technical director, Richard Schram, commented on the plans: “Euro NCAP will indeed incentivise OEMs to have physical, easy-to-use and tactile controls of the main driving features like wipers, warning lights and indicators.”

The proliferation of on-screen controls has rocketed in recent years, both as touchscreen technology has improved and allowed such functionality, and as carmakers have cottoned on to the fact that it’s easier and (much) cheaper to add a line of code to create an on-screen button than it is to create a physical button that passes all of the usual reliability and longevity tests. Equally, carmakers are keen to push car buyers down a path of paying for optional extras, or even taking out monthly subscriptions for them, after the car has been initially purchased, and the only way to make that work is to keep piling more and more functions on to the touchscreen.

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That has led us to a situation where controls for which you might reasonably expect to find a physical button have now migrated to the touchscreen. Even Volvo, that paragon of vehicular safety, has recently introduced its EX30 electric crossover that makes you access an on-screen menu simply to turn your fog lights on or off. Volkswagen, which has been roundly criticised for its glitchy on-screen software, has just launched the ID.7 electric saloon, which features a touchscreen control for something as simple as redirecting the air vent flow.

Tesla is arguably the worst offender. The recent update to the Model 3 has deleted the steering wheel stalks which controlled the indicators and gear selection, and replaced those with buttons on the steering wheel and touchscreen control respectively. It’s now getting to the point where touchscreens are becoming overloaded with functions, to the point where they are not only becoming difficult to use but are becoming dangerous in their ability to distract us while driving.

Even those who create the software for such screens are now starting to voice some concerns. Tom Blackie, chief executive of VNC Automotive – which supplies software to the likes of Toyota, VW and Honda – recently said: “Touchscreens dominate vehicle interiors, and we’re living increasingly connected lives. That means there are now many more opportunities for a driver’s focus to be elsewhere. They’ve become the ultimate back-seat driver, interrupting the task of driving to issue critique but with not enough context to be useful.”

NCAP has raised concerns that the very fact that carmakers base the functionality and layout of touchscreens on mobile phones might be undermining safety warnings not to use your phone when driving

Blackie said his company’s experience in creating software for 35 million vehicles gives it particular insight into the fact that: “There’s a subtle yet significant difference between an interface that offers a slick window on to a digital world and one that buries basic functionality at the centre of a labyrinth. As advocates for technology that makes interactions easier by not getting in the way, we design our interfaces to reduce the need for confirmatory glances away from the road. Perhaps the time has come to recognise the seriousness of this challenge and ask our safety organisations to develop formal assessments for in-vehicle distraction.”

It’s important to note that Euro NCAP is not a regulatory body, and carmakers voluntarily submit their vehicles for testing by that organisation, but the crash-test results and safety ratings that it generates are hugely influential both on the buying public and at the boardroom level of the car manufacturers. The fact that NCAP seems to be gunning for touchscreens, to an extent, seems like a significant shift that could have far-reaching ramifications for vehicle design.

“The overuse of touchscreens is an industrywide problem, with almost every vehicle-maker moving key controls on to central touchscreens, obliging drivers to take their eyes off the road and raising the risk of distraction crashes,” said Matthew Avery, director of strategic development at Euro NCAP. “New Euro NCAP tests due in 2026 will encourage manufacturers to use separate, physical controls for basic functions in an intuitive manner, limiting eyes-off-road time and therefore promoting safer driving.”

NCAP has also raised concerns that the very fact that carmakers base the functionality and layout of touchscreens on mobile phones might be undermining safety warnings not to use your phone when driving. After all, is there really much difference between one touchscreen and another?

Previous studies seemed to show that the relatively simple screen layouts offered by smartphone-specific in-car software such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto was better for keeping distraction to a minimum, but such hopes have been dashed by a recent report from the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) in the UK. “Controlling the vehicle’s position in the lane and keeping a consistent speed and headway to the vehicle in front suffered significantly when interacting with either Android Auto or Apple CarPlay, particularly when using touch control” said the TRL report.

“Participants failed to react more often to a stimulus on the road ahead when engaging with either Android Auto or Apple CarPlay compared with a control drive. Reaction time to a stimulus on the road ahead was higher when selecting music through Spotify when using Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. The impact on reaction time when using touch control was worse than texting while driving.”

A further study by the American Automobile Association (AAA) found that entering a new destination into the sat-nav was the most distracting task of all, ahead of text-messaging, but there were effectively no winners in the research. The study looked at 30 vehicles driven along a two-mile stretch of suburban road. None of the cars that the AAA tested received a “low-demand” score when it came to using their infotainment systems, and only seven of the 30 were rated as being of “moderate” demand. The rest were either “high” or “very-high” demand.

In fact, for entering a destination into the sat-nav, drivers were found to be taking their eyes of the road and/or hands off the steering wheel for up to 40 seconds at a time. Doing that while driving at the 25mph (40kmh) speed limit on the test route, the car would travel for as far as 1,500m while the driver was effectively not in control.

Volkswagen, which has come in for no small criticism for its recent touchscreens, seems to be getting ahead of the game. Late last year, the company’s recently-appointed head of design Andreas Mindt, and its chief executive Thomas Schafer, both said that VW had reached an apogee of touchscreen use, and that it would start to bring physical controls back to its cars. That has already started with the new VW Tiguan, which gets physical buttons, rather than haptic touchpad controls, on its steering wheel as well as a tactile rotary controller that takes care of the stereo volume and driving mode selection, and will continue with the production version of the electric ID.2 hatchback.

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