More on The Poor State of Automobile Cockpit Interfaces

A while back I wrote that automobile dashboard design in modern cars sucks.  I drive many different cars as I am frequently renting cars on the road and I concluded:

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.

No one listens to me but they do listen to Consumer Reports, and that magazine dinged the new Tesla Model 3's for exactly this problem:

"Another major factor that compromised the Model 3’s road-test score was its controls. This car places almost all its controls and displays on a center touch screen, with no gauges on the dash, and few buttons inside the car. This layout forces drivers to take multiple steps to accomplish simple tasks. Our testers found that everything from adjusting the mirrors to changing the direction of the airflow from the air-conditioning vents required using the touch screen."

Postscript:  This is not really the point of this post, but how is this even possible in a small car like the Model 3?

"The Tesla’s stopping distance of 152 feet from 60 mph was far worse than any contemporary car we’ve tested and about 7 feet longer than the stopping distance of a Ford F-150 full-sized pickup," reads the review based on tests on different Model 3s.


  1. The_Big_W:

    How bad do your engineering choices on brakes have to be to build a small sedan with a Longer stopping distance than a full size pickup??

  2. Ken in NH:

    They probably used weaker brakes because they want KERS to be the primary braking mechanism.

  3. The_Big_W:

    True, but still, to post stopping numbers not even competitive with their vehicle class, is really bad.

    They're counting on the smug of Tesla 3 buyers to cover over the poor performance.

  4. Bluegrass:

    Just leased a new Audit A4. Great UI--nice blend of physical short-cut buttons and high tech system navigation.

  5. craftman:

    Making the AC/heat controls available ONLY via a screen is the worst offender. Maybe it's status quo bias but this functionality is used so often that buttons are warranted. I was in a rental car where you could only change the fan speed with a screen, no toggle or dial...infuriating. A good middle ground would be presets so you can automatically go hot, cold, low fan, high fan, etc.

  6. blackbellamy:

    I also rent often, and the first thing I do is spend 15 minutes going through all the menu bullshit trying to set the simplest settings, because if I want to do it while moving I'll wind up running people over. Speaking of non-digital controls, can the car makers at least agree on where to put the audio and cruise controls on the steering wheel? Half the cars I rent the cruise control is on the left side of the wheel, the other half on the right. I'm trying to get the volume up and suddenly I'm doing 115.

  7. Orion Henderson:

    And it will likely work.

  8. Mike Powers:

    If anything I'd expect KERS to *improve* the stopping distance...

  9. Ken in NH:

    Possibly if you use brakes appropriate for the vehicle weight. I am speculating that they use underrated brakes because they want KERS to be the primary braking mechanism.

  10. Steve-O:

    Doesn't a Model 3 weight 15% more than it's competition due to the battery pack? How much of a factor is that?

  11. JK Brown:

    Just saw a car repair video of an alternator replacement. This required disconnecting the battery. When he went to turn on some loads to test the new alternator, the AC/heat/fans required the use of the touchscreen and that required entering the security code. The controls were several screens deep.

  12. The_Big_W:

    I'm sorry officer, my jam came on the radio and I had to turn it all the way up.... ;-)

  13. C078342:

    We took delivery on a new Mini Cooper last December -- still trying to figure out the user interface. It is a POC. But then the Mini is a BMW who have had bad press for years with their I Drive interface. Have not had these problems with our Porsches or Audis.

  14. anders:

    The most blatant example of this over engineering of user interfaces must be microwave ovens. It is also the worst because the optimal UI is so simple, and it was standard on early models. You only need 2 knobs on a microwave oven, and maybe one button. One power knob and one timer knob, the latter which also functions as the on/off switch. Then you maybe need a button to open the door, although why you couldn't make do with a door handle I don't know?

    Knobs are awesome IO devices because they double as displays. In the microwave case, the power knob displays the power setting and the timer knob the time left. And clearly if it's not zero time left the thing is ON. No need for ANY other displays, or buttons period.

    But no. There are digital displays which displays info such as power in obtuse ways. Weird "auto" modes, that no one understands the purpose of. Modes that clearly does nothing but adjust power and time in a completely obfuscated way. There are knobs which may or may not also act as buttons, ie visually hidden input methods. Keypads to plug in numbers, possibly time, although often there's still a knob that does that as well, ie. superfluous input methods. Sometimes there is no single clear way to start the damn thing. Some manufacturer even add a "Quick" button to bypass all their UI over engineering. Why the need for such a button doesn't give them pause to rethink their poor UI design I can't fathom.

    OK maybe this isn't a 100% relevant rant, but it's a bit of a pet peeve. It is seem however almost a rule in UI designs that when manufacturers comes up with the optimal, or close to optimal, UI design in early generations of a thingy, then subsequent generation will have a worse UI. Regardless of the fact that it should be easy enough to compare the new UI with the old one and come to the conclusion that the new UI is utter rubbish. Even toaster manufacturers had a go at "improving" the toaster UI few decades ago. I recall it at some point was difficult to find one without some useless add-on function obscuring the function of making toast. But, thank God, they seem to have largely stopped with this nonsense, as far as I could tell, the last time i bought one.

  15. Daniel McGillicuddy Griswold:

    With practice, your hands know where to reach when you adjust things without looking at a screen. Totally NOT a fan of a control screen that forces you to take your eyes off the road. I despise AC/Heater controls for driver and passenger. Took me a while to learn the system in a rental car that while my side was set to 67 while the unoccupied passenger side was set to 88. WTF!! AC on my side heater on the other.

  16. Eric Wilner:

    My '02 Prius is heavy for its size, too, and it stops very quickly indeed, mostly using regenerative braking (side benefit: it'll need its first-ever brake job at about 250K miles).

  17. OneGuy:

    My pet peeve is the smart key. It is too big to put on my key ring so I have every other key I need with me all the time but not my car key. It is expensive if it stops working or is lost, about $200. You can make a non-smart duplicate that will open the door BUT if you have my second pet peeve, auto alarm, you can't open the door with it without waking up the neighborhood. And it won't run the engine. I don't know why they made the smart key, my suspicion is to make more profit. I don't know why they put an alarm in the car either, it should be an option not standard equipment.

  18. Peabody:

    Checking quickly on Car and Driver's website, the curb weight of the Model 3 of 3838 lbs and the F150 is 4912 lbs.

  19. BGThree:

    Stupid human, that was the braking time from 60mph with a stupid human operating the vehicle. RTFM. To get optimal braking, set suspension to sport mode, activate all active driver-assist features, set cruise control to 60mph, put driver in trunk blindfolded, put gag in driver's mouth after he yells "OK Elon, navigate to profitability, avoiding dirt roads, subsidies and ferries." It will reply "I'm sorry slave I can't do that" but finding an acceptable route maxes out the processors and will cause the vehicle to leave the road, hit a high curb or other ground level obstacle that punctures the skid plate/humongous lithium ion battery underneath the passengers, thereby incinerating the drive train and bringing the vehicle to a stop in less distance than a Ford F150

  20. herdgadfly:

    Coyote is dead right-on! My new GMC Terrain has the apps-in-the middle of the dash warning me not to focus on the onscreen apps to the right of where I should be looking while driving. Ridding the vehicle of a gearshift on the console will never fly on a permanent basis.

  21. Matthew Slyfield:

    RE: the stopping distance of the model 3 vs a Ford F150.

    Don't forget, that the F150 has 9K-10K pounds of towing capacity. That means that it has to have breaks strong enough not just to stop the truck itself, but another 5 tons of dead weight. It would be no surprise at all, if it would have a shorter stopping distance when not towing anything than most small cars.

    I have a 2015 F150 (the first model year with the aluminum body). I had an incident where another vehicle stopped short in front of me, I hit the breaks hard and my truck stopped so short, the front end dipped so far, for a fraction of a second, I thought it might flip end over end on me.

  22. Bruce Anderson:

    I just got an old ‘95 Mercedes E320. Best damn cruise control interface ever. There’s a another smaller stick above the turn signal stalk. Push it up to turn on cruise or push up and hold to go faster. Push it down also turns it on, and push down and hold to go slower. Push it forward to resume manual control. Pull it back to resume previously set speed. No on/off switch. No set/accelerate/decelerate/cancel tiny buttons on the wheel.

  23. Matthew Slyfield:

    Actually, you can get that even if your engineering choices are quite good on the small sedan.

    A full size pickup is designed in part for heavy towing, at 10K pounds and higher, that means that the pickup has to have breaks strong enough to stop the pickup + another 5+ tons of dead weight. That an unencumbered full size pickup would have a shorter stopping distance than a small sedan is unsurprising to anyone who knows anything about full size pickups.

    comparing stopping distance between a small sedan and an unencumbered full size pickup is unfair to the small sedan.

  24. Mercury:

    Obviously Elon Musk has never actually driven a car

    …and/or the government is mandating that car manufacturers must OBD II the bejesus out of everything in a car and the easiest way to do that is to connect everything into one, electronic interface.

    Because it’s impossible that in a competitive market, all cars, even ones made by outside-the-box, touched-by-God, polymath geniuses, contain so many inconvenient/dangerous features that no one actually wants or needs. This is the equivalent of replacing the ubiquitous and practical elastic waistband with a (“smart!” phone-app operated) anal plug sewn into your sweatpants.

    No car I own has or will ever have any of this crap. Y’all are suckers…

  25. marco73:

    Similar situation happened to me with my Tacoma. Had someone stop short in front of me on the interstate, and I went from 80 to zero in a real hurry. ABS and a couple other lights on the dash lit up, and the brake pedal shuddered. Felt like the truck was just standing on its nose, balancing on 2 wheels. The small sporty car right behind me could not stop, and just skidded off the road into the grass median. Luckily no damage, just thanks for some serious modern engineering.

  26. cc:

    The biggest problem with these menus in a car is not just the annoyance, but safety. When I know where a button or dial is, i can access it by barely glancing at it while driving. A menu? Totally have to take my eyes off the road, maybe for several seconds.

  27. ErikTheRed:

    Oh seriously, this. Our GE Profile microwave (which I bought because at the time it was the only one with the feature set I wanted that fit in the space we have) has one of the worst UIs I've ever seen. They've even managed to screw up the knob. Ever time I use the thing I mutter about the frigtards who designed it.

    The Panasonic countertop microwave that I bought for the break room in one of our businesses (at a fraction of the price), on the other hand, is so beautifully done it could be used in a textbook on clean, simple, functional UI design.

  28. ErikTheRed:

    Yup. I recently rented an allegedly high-end / "sporty" Cadillac CTS (being a rental, it still had a crap motor) and was shocked at how bad the buttons were. On a car with less than 3000 miles, they were already becoming unresponsive. The only saving grace was CarPlay (which lets your iPhone or iPad take over much of the UI functionality for complex tasks like navigation and entertainment/music) - after living with it a week, I've decided that I love CarPlay and that will be on all future car purchases.

  29. cc:

    You are lucky. Replacement for the lexus is more like $400. I would rather have a real key. It is handy to just walk up to your car and get in, but really don't lose that key.

  30. ErikTheRed:

    On the higher-end BMWs they add enough buttons back in to make iDrive less annoying, but yeah, it's bad enough to use while parked - it's difficult to use the basic models safely while driving.

    On the other hand, Porsche refuses to add heads-up displays to their cars like BMW puts in theirs, and that's about the only thing keeping me away from a new Panamera. Having lived with a HUD in my M5 for several years, I can't imagine why people at Porsche are so dead-set against them. Yes, you can look down to check your speed and tach (as the Porsche people will carry about at length when this is brought up), but ... why fetishize the practice? Driving involves occasionally flicking your eyes away from the road to check gauges and mirrors. The HUD gives you one less reason to take your eyes off the road, which is A Good Thing. It has an off switch if you hate it. It reminds me of people who want stick transmissions, even though modern dual-clutch automatics are better in every objective way (sticks are fun, but a human can't out-shift a top-notch automatic anymore - not even close). My only gripe with BMW's HUD is they won't put more information on it - If I could integrate my radar detector info it would be so much better.

  31. ErikTheRed:

    Yeah, I was going to say... "only $200?"

    I'm kind of torn on the subject. It seems silly and ostentatious to me on paper, but BMW implemented it so well on our cars that I'd choose it if it was an option. They seem to have just nailed the proximity detection, so as long as the fob is in my pocket the door unlocks the instant I touch the handle - it reminds me of FaceID on the iPhone, which is another brilliantly-implemented-albeit-crazy-expensive unlock system. BMW also set it up so that it won't let you lock your keys in the car or the trunk, which is something that's probably saved me much more than $400 over the years.

  32. Matthew Slyfield:

    Mine wasn't on the interstate, it was on local streets. I went from 30 to 0 in what felt like not much more than a truck length.

  33. ErikTheRed:

    Is it just me, or is watching the news about people (ab)using Tesla autopilot kind of like that television show Jackass plus crispy, flaming death?

  34. ErikTheRed:

    I've never owned an Audi, but I regularly hear owners praise the UI so I'm assuming it's at least reasonably awesome. Please enjoy it on behalf of the rest of us who chose different trade-offs in their vehicle purchases and have crap UIs... :-)

  35. slocum:

    "That means that it has to have breaks strong enough not just to stop the truck itself, but another 5 tons of dead weight"

    No, large, heavy trailers have their own brakes.

  36. slocum:

    Yep, I'm really dreading the inevitable touch screen on the next new car. We just managed to avoid one in our 2014, but I don't think there'll be any escape next time. I curse them every time in rentals. Pet prediction -- eventually, once touch screens have been universal for a while, some luxury brands will start dropping them. Physical gauges, buttons and dials will become premium features.

  37. Matthew Slyfield:

    Many do, but not all, and the trailer breaks are just an assist, they wouldn't be enough to stop the trailer on their own

  38. Matthew Slyfield:

    Yes, but the F150 has much stronger breaks for reasons beyond the difference in curb weight. In fact, unencumbered with a trailer, the F150 almost has too much break.

  39. Maximum Liberty:

    Same with our Honda. No issues at all. And there's a real key inside the FOB, which you can get to if the battery is dead. And there's a button on the exterior door handle that locks the doors if the key is in your pocket.

    Actually, there is one issue: I now try to open the front door to my house without getting the key out of my pocket. I'll eventually break my nose by walking into it.

  40. Broccoli:

    The stopping distance is not going to be a function of the brakes for a single stop where heat dissipation doesn't play a role. Your braking force is limited by your tire friction, because all brakes on modern cars are strong enough to lock up the wheels. Once the tires slip and go from static friction to dynamic friction, you have hit the peak stopping force for those tires. Static friction forces are higher than dynamic friction forces. Anti-lock brake systems essentially ride that transition, letting the wheels roll for a split second to get back into static friction and then increasing brake force until the lock again. Hence the juttering.

    Model 3s and other energy efficient cars often choose low rolling resistance tires, which directly translates to lower static friction coefficients. That combined with the weight of the battery pack determine the long stopping distances.

  41. Gilligan:

    Especially weird given all the concern about texting-while-driving.

  42. John Moore:

    My 2015 Toyota Highlander has a messed up user interface. It has a couple of knobs - volume and station. But the station knob feeds a computer, and the clicks you feel have no relationship to how many channels it has passed. So, you have to look at the screen. Driving down the road?

    Also, if you want to switch, say, from XM Radio to FM, you have to go through several steps on the centrally mounted touch screen. You can do it with an obscure control on the wheel, too, but there is no feedback to tell you which you have hit. So unless you know that it is three clicks from one source to another... back to the screen.

  43. Joe Blizzard:

    The reason CR compared the Model 3's stopping distance to an F150 is that pickups in general do much worse on stopping distance tests than cars. A small car testing worse than a full size pickup is definitely NOT to be expected. Look up CR's best/worst dry braking data if you don't believe me.

  44. Matthew Slyfield:

    I drive an F150 daily. I know how it stops when I'm not towing anything If you are correct about what CR reports, I would question the validity of their testing.

  45. Billford:

    This is the worst I've seen. The automatic gear shifter looks like the radio or fan dial (scroll down halfway to the Chrysler Pacifica):

  46. Brad Warbiany:

    I should point out that only high-end cars have fancy dual-clutch automatic transmissions with a high gear count. Yes, those transmissions not only shift faster, but are more efficient, than a manual transmission. For example when I was looking at cars (chose a Ford Flex over Dodge Durango), one of the criteria for a Durango was that it be >2014, I believe, when they went to a MUCH improved transmission relative to the previous model, going I think from a 5-speed auto to a 7- or 8-speed auto.

    Yet a manual is still more fun to drive.

    For low-end and mid-range cars, they typically don't have fancy automatic transmissions. In those cars I don't think you get the advantages. Those lower-end cars will still have slow gear changes, will have a limited number of gears [so they don't reap the benefits on fuel efficiency], etc.

    And a manual is still way more fun than those.

  47. Frognot:

    Brakes, not breaks. Please. For the children. Plus, additional braking "power" makes no difference once you exceed the traction of the tires. It's a rare vehicle that doesn't have brakes strong enough to break traction, hence ABS on most new vehicles.

  48. Matthew Slyfield:

    1. ABS brakes are mostly intended for reduced traction road conditions like ice, not normal conditions.

    Heavier vehicles, particularly ones designed for heavy towing are very likely to have higher traction tires.

  49. TransHat:

    Here's simplicity: You can set the timer while closing the door and with no start button it's running the moment the door is closed. They even used an expanded scale for the first couple minutes. This was a thing of beauty.

  50. Joe Blizzard:

    This makes perfect sense. Right out of William of Ockham's toiletry bag.