Why Modern Car Dashboards Suck

The WSJ has an article today about digital dashboards in cars, focusing on how software glitches are making cares undriveable, the motoring version of the blue screen of death.  I have no particular comment on the reliability issue, but the article reminds me that for a while I have wanted to post a rant about modern car electronics.

Specifically, my issue is with the user interface, and that user interface sucks.  I have a 2007 model car and am in no hurry to replace it in large part because I cannot find a car with a user interface for the sound and climate systems that I can tolerate.   I will illustrate this with a look at my wife's car, a Mercedes that is a couple of years old.  Her radio still has 10 preset buttons (actual physical buttons, thank god for small favors) but for them to work, her radio has to be in radio preset channel mode.  So let's say it is there and I get in the car and want to listen to Sirius channel 80 (ESPN).  That is not one of her presents,  I have to get out of preset mode and get into satellite radio mode.  To do that I have to hit the back button, then with this dial thing I have to bump the dial up to get the top menu, turn the dial to get audio options, click the dial to select audio options, then turn the dial again to select satellite radio (vs. other choices like FM or AM) and then click the dial to select.  Now I am in satellite radio mode and I can twirl the dial to go up and down the stations.  I have to do similar contortions navigating layers of menus to get into navigation mode or pull up a map.  All while I am trying to drive.

Compare this to my 2007 car.  If I am in some other radio mode, I jam the physical button marked "sat" and I am in satellite radio mode.  No layers of menus to navigate.  I can hit the FM or AM buttons to immediately reach those.  If I want the map, I hit the physical button marked "map" or the button marked "nav".  No navigating through layers of windows while I am trying to drive.  Some of the rental cars I get are even worse.  They have integrated systems that cover not just the sound system and navigation system but the climate control.  It is incredibly irritating and distracting to have to try to navigate layers of menus just to change the fan speed on the A/C.  My wife and I have had whole trips where we never discovered how to do certain things in the car because we couldn't figure out the obtuse interface.

So this is what I don't understand.  If car designers are getting rid of physical buttons in favor of multilayered menu systems because it saves them a bunch of money, fine.  Bad trade-off in my mind, but there is at least a reason.   But if they are getting rid of physical buttons because they think that modern users prefer navigating multiple screens to access commonly used functionality, this is simply insane.  No one can top me for pure technophilia, but technical wizardry should not come at the expense of reduced usability.

Postscript:  And don't tell me "well, you can use voice commands."  The voice interface in my wife's Mercedes is still unreliable and results in her yelling at it a lot.  And while they have a lot of upside, most voice interfaces still have the same problem that Alexa has, which is that you have to memorize a syntax for each command.  You can't say natural language, "Alexa I need lights" or "turn the lights on Alexa" it has to be "Alexa, bedroom lights on."  Sort of the verbal equivalent of WordPerfect, where users had to memorize what cntl-alt-shift-R does.


  1. Rick C:

    Perhaps the issue is more with Mercedes. Aren't they the ones who went the whole "one dial to do everything" route?

    By contrast, my '15 Sonic requires these steps to do the same thing: Hit the Radio Band button once or twice (depending on what band it was on) until it changes to XM, then spin the right-hand dial until you reach channel 80, then push in on the dial to select it. If you were already on XM, you'd skip the first step.

    I just have the basic radio, not the fancier touch-screen version, so I don't know if the experience there is worse. It's interesting, though, that a much-more-luxurious car has such a worse experience in, well, anything.

  2. Rick C:

    Oh, and, yeah, my car has the traditional 3-knob setup for HVAC: temp, fan speed, and which vents are active, plus two buttons: a/c on/off and recirc on/off.

  3. OpportunityCost:

    I tagged along when my wife bought a new Honda last year. Everything is controlled by the touch screen, although fortunately the menus only run one layer. We both agreed this is a step backwards, and the salesman (also of our age) more or less agreed, but he noted that most buyers like it, at least while parked in the showroom. It's just like a phone, which is how folks interface with the world now.

  4. smilerz:

    I agree - car interfaces are terrible. I'm in the market for a car and in additional to typical car buying requirements I had to add Car Play simply so that I can use my phone to work around the dumb car interfaces.

    Regarding Alexa, it's getting a little better - you can now create scenes that are a little more natural language (though they are hard coded and require some setup).

  5. Steve Burrows:

    Don't get me started on the nightmare of my '07 BMW interface (interface, HAH!). Good thing it has a manual transmission.

  6. ErikTheRed:

    Totally agree about UX madness in vehicles. My biggest small pet peeve is having to set the clock on cars with GPS systems. GPS systems work by comparing extremely accurate time signals from various satellites - this same information, combined with the position of the car (GPS, duh), tell you everything you need to know to keep the clock updated with millisecond-level precision. The only thing that changes are rules about DST, and that's a very minor and occasional software update that's already built and distributed for every software operating system in existence. The fact that this isn't an obvious and automatic feature makes me weep for humanity.

    I rented a car last year with Apple CarPlay (Cadillac CTS), and while the rest of their control panel was a disaster (cheap plastic buttons that never accepted presses with consistency or reliability), the Apple UI controlling navigation, entertainment, etc. made that part of the experience excellent. I would imagine that Android aficionados will feel similarly about Google's offering with the added exhibitionist impulses that Google caters to. The car UX experience will improve as Apple and Google take more and more control over it.

  7. C078342:

    I believe BMW once called the interface "I Drive" which most owners quickly dubbed "I can't drive" or something similar. We got a Mini Cooper S last fall, which is a BMW made in England. I assume it uses the I Drive interface from its parent. It is terrible. It took me about 7 minutes to go to standard time from daylight time a few weeks ago. The radio has at least 6 different visual appearances and bringing up one is pure chance. I'm not an idiot -- 40 years in the aerospace industry designing jet engines. It is not that its a German brand, the interface of my 2015 Porsche Macan is straight forward and easy to use. To change daylight/standard it is simply vehicle>settings>time and checking or unchecking the daylight box.

  8. ErikTheRed:

    Actually, I think BMW started the One Dial to Rule Them All idiocy (I remember bemoaning it) - fortunately, they've supplemented that with several function buttons (at least on my relatively new 5-series). I really like that the "radio preset" buttons can be programmed to just about any UX feature, and there are just enough buttons on the center console and steering wheel to keep me from having to use the Idiot Knob that often.

  9. ErikTheRed:

    Ugh... regarding voice commands... I recently added a home audio player that uses them. While the voice recognition is spectacular (even with difficult accents from them immigrant furrners that I tend to like, or the user facing the "wrong way" or speaking softly) it's still limited in its capabilities and even selecting music is slower and less precise than picking something on my phone or tablet. It is excellent for vague commands, which are sometimes a thing "Hey Siri, play new rock music" when you don't know what you want or just don't feel like being specific. "Hey Siri, tell me about the weather" takes about five times longer to accomplish than using my phone or watch and ain't nobody got time for that.

  10. The_Big_W:

    "Verbal equivalent of wordperfect."

    Brought a smile to my face. Well said.

  11. ErikTheRed:

    Yeah, they went through a really ugly iDrive phase back then. Fortunately, some of the newer cars are going back to dozens of buttons which is far more efficient and user-friendly in the long run.

  12. Steve Burrows:

    Funny thing, this BMW doesn't have iDrive, just a "normal" looking head unit. Seems to have wedged iDrive into a bewildering combination of random buttons. Prior to this BMW, I did have the same model with iDrive which took me some time to get used to.

  13. ErikTheRed:

    WordPerfect was extremely annoying in that regard (remember those keyboard templates), but hot damn was it fast once you had your commands memorized. So at least you got amazing efficiency out of the deal. The "upside" for these voice assistance seems to be quite the opposite.

  14. marco73:

    When I picked out a Tacoma a couple years back, I immediately gravitated to the one that was almost bare bones: no Nav system and no satellite radio. But it did have a bluetooth setup that works with multiple phones. The poor salesman bemoaned that I wasn't getting the upgraded and much more expensive integrated NAV/entertainment system.
    So as the years go on, each time I or the mrs or anyone else in the family upgrades their phone I just let it interface with the truck and away we go.
    The climate system is run by big knobs that I can manipulate even when wearing gloves. Try using those cutesy touch screens when shivering and wearing gloves.

  15. box_500:

    The Sat Nav in my wife's 2015 BMW. I get so frustrated with that I feel like ripping it out the dash and hurling it into the street. Literally the worst piece of user interface design I have ever seen in my life.

  16. Agammamon:

    The best part is trying to navigate unfamiliar menus *while trying to drive*.

    And its considered dangerous to use cellphones while driving . . .

  17. FactsB4Hype:

    Knobs were easy--for radio, yes, but more importantly for driver-determined (not CPU-determined) climate control. Let me turn the knob (without needing to look at it, btw) for the temperature, for the level of air flow, and for where I want it to go. Ditto radio--I would take the radio I had in our old '72 Buick Centurion over what any of these modern cars offer.

    Secondarily, we need to kill the electrically adjusted seat. In my wife's 2017 Volvo, it takes between 22 and 25 seconds for me to 'slide' the seat from her driving position to mine. Makes...me...want...to...scream. Contrast that to the manual 'lift the bar and in under 1 second you have it perfect' mode of earlier autos.

    It's somewhat akin to booting up/shutting down a PC. Yes, PC's have more power than ever...but it takes the same amount of time to boot up and shut down--and Windows updates are announced and initiated only when you are in a rush to turn off your device to get on the plane--and since it won't turn off, the battery continues to drain. 'Progress' my _ss. Then again, I miss manual windows--you didn't need a key to get air moving through the car while waiting for the driver to get in and start it.

  18. David James:

    The boot time can be cut to a tiny fraction of the time if you get an SSD instead of a normal hard drive. I think I'm spoiled now.

  19. me:

    UX experts call those modalities, and, while generally bad, they are trumped by hidden modalities (think "if you hold this button for between 3 and 5 seconds, it'll switch to right to left mode").

    The amazing truth of this day and age is that design teams frequently contain UI designers whose skill envelope ends at being good at photoshop but not interaction designers (who would prevent this kind of madness)

  20. slocum:

    One of our cars is a 2014, but we managed to snag a model with no touchscreen at all. Which is about perfect. It's modern enough to have bluetooth for audio connections from the phone and that's all I want or need. But the other car is about ready for the scrapyard and we'll have to upgrade. Probably there will be no way to avoid annoying touch screen tech this time. My prediction by the way -- once all the fanciest electronics (which doesn't cost much to produce after all) filter all the way down to the bottom end, then car-makers will bring back physical buttons and non-digital dashboards for their luxury models. Like expensive watches.

  21. The_Big_W:

    Its the Emacs of word processors.... ;-)

  22. irandom419:

    Can't agree more. I miss the old AM only radios with push buttons.

  23. Jaedo Drax:

    Proposed, carmakers design an easy to use program interface that allows you to set up your radio, climate control etc in the form that you want. In addition, that allows you to set up voice macros where you tell it what to do in an easy to remember voice command, and it does what you want it to.

    tbh, a car is a terrible environment for voice commands anyway.

  24. Dennis:

    In my experience, Alexa does a pretty good job with word transpositions.

  25. AtlantaDude:

    Weak car UX is simply an extension of an overall trend. This will sound sacrilegious to many, but I think UI design died with the iPhone. We went from a world of defined processes and reasonable instructions to a world of "just poke around and see what happens". Software and app developers seem to have outsourced the documentation and training function to unpaid, independent YouTube performers. My teenagers have no problem navigating that world, but it drives me crazy.

  26. Gilligan:

    My personal theory is that it's all caused by backup cameras. The [mandatory] display screens take up so much real estate that you can no longer fit in a proper interface.

    Worse, this whole design trend happened at the same time we're cracking down on texting-while-driving.

  27. Ward Chartier:

    For years I've hoped that Apple would move into dashboard interface systems. Apple's user interfaces are quite intuitive. Apple's interface designers approach from the users' perspective, not an engineers perspective. We drivers care not one whit for elegant engineering. We want to adjust the controls while safely driving.

  28. Bill Workman:

    Hell, I can't even reset the clock in my car.

  29. John Moore:

    I have a 2015 Toyota Highlander. The UI is terrible. And it is really unsafe - soft buttons (meaning, on screen) mean you have to look at the screen to use it. Modalities mean you have to look at it to see what mode it is in.

    Even worse, the audio and channel/frequency knobs are electronic. They are physical knobs, but instead of being connected to things, they go to what are called rotary encoders, where software interprets them. That means inadequate haptic feedback - you can't rotate one all the way to one end, because there is no end. And, the little bumps it makes when you rotate it (their idea of haptic feedback) are not strictly correlated with the actual encoder - so rotate two clicks might or might not move the channel by two channels - it depends on what mood the thing is in.

    Also, it disables some options while in motion - no doubt for safety. BUT... it doesn't do anything sensible like greying them out. Instead, they just disappear. And, if there is a passenger, it should enable them so the passenger can operate it.

    I spent quite a bit of time thinking the thing was glitchy - sometimes I'd see an option, other times I wouldn't. For example, the GPS wouldn't even give you a menu item to enter an address if the car was in gear. I finally Googled it and discovered that it was simply removing those options when it thought they were unsafe to use - without *any* indication that this was done on purpose.

    Also, the unit should be the shame of JBL - the manufacturer. Not only does it have all these problems, but also the GPS map display is pretty worthless. Even when I know it has the data for various small towns, it won't show them unless I am close. So when I am driving through rural Arizona or Texas, sometimes the display shows no cities at all - just a line for the highway.


  30. Ken in NH:

    It's a lesson the car manufacturers have to learn over and over again. In the 50s, 60s, and 70s they put the speakers in cars and it was junk. In the 50s and 60s it might not have mattered as much since AM was king and good speakers would be wasted on it, especially in the noisy environment of a car. Then FM took over in the 70s and reigned from the (mid?) 70s onward. Now, everyone understood how crappy the audio systems in their cars were, more so when you added cassette tape and, later, CD to the mix. I believe Cadillac was the first to bring in an audio company, Bose I think, to design the sound. But the head units were still industrial in function and simple, but not very good. They took decades to make head units (and amplifiers) to match what people were doing after market since the early 80s. Now most cars, even basic models, are rolling sound rooms with multiple size speakers, bass modules, amplifiers, and even surround sound.

    The car manufactures cannot let go though. They provide locked-in "smart" entertainment systems with $200/year-to-update, offline navigation systems. They are pushing in-car Wifi even though most cell providers now allow people to tether with their smart phones. And it's all trash because they are not consumer electronics companies with UX designers and programmers any more than they were sound designers like Bose or JBL back in the 80s and 90s. Worse, they've made it nearly impossible to remove their junk and install after-market systems that are useful and easy to use while being superior in audio performance. And the tragedy of it is that every car manufactured these days uses a standard CAN bus that anything can plug into and communicate with the car to get telemetry data or user inputs from the steering wheel controls. But while the CAN bus and protocol is standardized, the API to the car systems is not and not publicly documented. It's a mess and the manufacturers refuse to learn.

  31. WhoStruckJohn:

    In recent years I've had a Jetta Sportwagen. The Jetta had a touchscreen radio with 2 knobs & menus only one layer deep; it was pretty good. The climate control suffered from undersized, poorly labeled control knobs.

    I currently have a Ford Fiesta. The climate controls are excellent - large, clearly labeled and easy to use. The radio, however, is a 20+ button nightmare. Everyone who approved that design should have been fired.

  32. kidmugsy:

    Serves you right for buying a Merc.

  33. kidmugsy:

    A couple of years ago we considered all our desiderata for a new car and then went out and bought a ten year old; a ten year old diesel, in fact.

    I suppose at some point we'll buy a modern petrol hybrid but by then we might be dead. If you see what I mean.

  34. CapitalistRoader:

    It will be nice when the car drives itself. Then we can fiddle around with controls all we want.

  35. John Moore:

    Sadly, my horrible in-car entertainment/information system is from JBL. See below.

  36. Mondak:

    I wonder if there is a site that rates these things.

    For example, the MyFord Sync system from Ford is pretty damn easy to use, and has physical buttons for anything that you do often and they are never overruled by the screen. Great system.

    My girlfriend's Acura is a nightmare much like you describe in your post. TWO screens not just one but FORGET any kind of division of labor. You never know if even something simple like a radio function is on the top screen or the bottom.

    I also have driven a Chevy Tahoe and I'd say it is somewhere in between. I suppose the complaint would be just on WYSYWIG (what you see is what you get) type of things, but no where near the abortion that is the Acura.

    I remember a while back there were luxury cell phones. These were custom phones that cost $10,000 but the problem was that for $500 a regular iphone would blow it away. Ultimately, those phones were old technology with glued on gold and diamonds or whatever. Luxury car brands seem to be doing this with their interfaces.

  37. Ken in NH:

    Good point. Manufacturers like JBL and Harmon-Kardon have been complicit. I suspect that's because they see the car manufacturer's as their customers, not the consumer. I don't believe JBL makes after-market head units any more. (I believe the same is true for H-K.)

  38. SnoCamo:

    As far as the radio presets, it doesnt to be that bad. We have a TV that has a half dozen presets on the remote. But what makes it work as it stores the mode/input as well as the channels. For example, Pre set one is Input 1: Antenna, Channel 22, Preset 2 Input 2: DirectTV Channel 390 etc.

    We just hit the preset and all the switching takes place.

  39. herdgadfly:

    Now the 2018 Cars are showing up with not-so-huge computer-like screens in the middle of the dash - complete with icons. While we are told not to text and drive, now we are required to read, expand , page and start or stop apps. Somehow that seems wrong. Wouldn't voice commands be better?

  40. Joe - the non economist:

    Simple is almost always better

    Quite frankly, am/fm radio, A/C & heat and windshield wipers all that is needed.

  41. Bistro:

    Talk about your first world problems....

  42. Tempe Jeff:

    My safety gripe is a little different. Many times an evening, I see cars with Headlights off driving with their Dashboard lit up brightly. If the sensor determines it is dark enough for the Dash to light up, the Headlights should have to be on as well.

  43. paul:

    I came to the comments to say how twice a year I get humiliated by not being able to adjust my clock to daylight savings (a problem that Coyote would point out Arizona has fixed a different way). And I have a PhD in computer science, which makes it doubly frustrating since I know it is not that difficult to program a good user interface. I don't use the sound system except with my phone, but it won't even keep in that mode, it switches to radio every time (even if the phone is connected) and has to manually be put back to play from my phone. My car is a (mini) convertible, and another annoyance is that if you put the top down, it leaves the climate control unchanged. Yeah, I put the top down, but I want to keep running the air conditioner to an automatic temperature setting of 70. Like someone above who mentioned that since the car knows there is a passenger (it turns the airbag on for a start, and a light that says it has done that) it could use that information. The car knows the top is down (it actually has the all time world's most useless dial that counts how long you have had the top down, up to 7 hours, then it resets to zero. Really useful!)

  44. Thane_Eichenauer:

    Which car company will hire Eric S. Raymond to do their user interface (or refer them to a UI master)? THAT IS THE QUESTION!


  45. Jerry_In_Detroit:

    Voice commands? Did no one ever tell you that the common engineering languages are profanity and obscenity. Your wife needs to swear like a sailor at her car....in German.

  46. JK Brown:

    The same interface "experts", probably Ivy grads who designed the card chip readers for checkouts moved on to automobiles. Really, I learned 30 years ago, from a Navy training film that was about 20 years old then, that you don't use the same word for do and do not actions.

    "Do not remove card" and "Remove card" are horrible interface design that has been known for as long as most of us have been alive. "Leave card in Reader" and "Remove card" are not easy to misread.

    Check out this video on how bad those digital dashes can distract and annoy. And all for want of a decent 50 cent cover on the towing connector.

    Irony, in this Ford, it does keep telling you that, "No BLIS" for you. [Blind Spot Warning]


  47. JB Say:

    My Audi Q7 is so complex that the mechanics at the dealership must plug it into a machine for diagnostics with engineers in Germany. Lol ridiculous.

  48. obloodyhell:

    Just pick the car better. The Genesis Coupe from 2013 has buttons to do most of what you're talking about. The biggest problem it has is that it has an inexplicably crappy touch screen in general. But you don't need it for most of the basic functions. AM-FM, Sat Radio, Phone, all hard buttons.

  49. markm:

    A brightly-lit dash is probably in daytime mode. Especially with the LCD-style screens, it takes much more more light to make the dash markings visible against daylight than at night-time.

  50. markm:

    Switches and knobs are quite expensive compared to software - but expecting your customers to navigate deep menus on a touch screen WHILE DRIVING sounds like going cheap on safety to me. They should ask the Ford executives that decided to save 5 bucks on the Pinto rear axle and gas tank about that.

    I recently saw a video about a really complex interface - but nothing is more than two button presses deep, because the designers included an insane number of buttons and single-function displays, limited only by the available surface area rather than by cost considerations. It's a 737 cockpit (actually a simulator). "Can a PASSENGER land a PLANE?"


    Notice that this woman is landing the plane entirely on autopilot, under the direction of an airline captain, and she's still quite busy. The video skipped a couple of hours of learning where the main controls and displays are, so she could follow the instructions in the time available - and she still has no idea how to deal with anything breaking down.