The Touchscreen Needs to Go
It’s not curmudgeonly if they’re actually worse
I'm officially done with touchscreens in cars. I've had enough and it's time to call for a cease and desist. They're fine on smartphones or tablets, but not for an infotainment system sitting inside a two-ton vehicle that travels down the highway at 75-plus mph.
I find it ironic that when BMW launched its iDrive system in 2001, most people hated the complicated, rotary-controller setup. I sure did. Many asked why BMW didn't fit a touchscreen instead. Over the years, iDrive has become my favorite infotainment setup on the market. Similar systems on certain Audi and Mercedes models are very good too. To be fair, the early iDrive iterations were complicated and full of bugs, but BMW fixed those issues and improvements continue today. The addition of preset buttons in the dash and shortcut buttons surrounding the central iDrive controller were big steps forward.
Our first family automobile carrying a rotary controller-type infotainment system was a 2007 BMW 530xi wagon. My wife, Alice, drove the car and quickly grew to love iDrive. She enjoyed how quickly and easily you could spin the iDrive knob through menus and playlists while her arm comfortably rested on the center console. She was able to keep her concentration on the road during selections on the screen.
"It's so intuitive and easy to use, while taking very little attention away from driving," Alice said. "You don't have to look intently at the screen to confirm where you're placing your finger like you do with a touchscreen."
Her next car, a 2012 Mercedes-Benz E350 4Matic wagon, had an excellent system too—the company's iDrive-esque COMAND system.
"The Benz wagon had many more features than my old BMW, including navigation with traffic data and weather with satellite images," noted Alice. "The Mercedes' menu structure meant I was able to quickly learn the more in-depth system. I had a wonderful experience with it. Plus, the screen always stayed clean—something that's not the case with a touchscreen."
My departed 2016 Ford Focus RS featured a touchscreen—Ford's SYNC 3 system. It's a big step up from its predecessor, the severely flawed MyFord Touch setup, but it still annoyed me on a regular basis. Searching for music or inputting destinations into the navigation was a chore that forced me to take my eyes off the road for far too long. Also, as the stiff RS bounced like a pogo stick down the road due to the ultra-aggressive suspension tuning, my finger would regularly hit the wrong button on the screen. Frustrating. Yes, Ford offers voice input as an alternative, but I was never impressed with how it worked and I like to browse for music rather than trying to remember what music I have in my library.
Adding fuel to the growing flames surrounding touch-operated systems, I recently spent extended time with the latest Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) touchscreen setup—InControl Touch. My first exposure came during a few weeks with the Automobile Four Seasons 2017 Land Rover Discovery. Then, straight after, I had nearly two weeks with a Jaguar XJ in England. Even after a month with the JLR infotainment system, I still found it very frustrating. It's extremely slow and cumbersome and, like SYNC 3 in the Focus RS, it forces you to take your eyes off the road for far too long. The voice input setup was also very poor. I was relieved to spend a couple of days behind the wheel of my mother-in-law's 2016 BMW 330d M Sport wagon during the same UK trip. The direct comparison only reinforced that iDrive is miles better than a touchscreen, as far as both functionality and safety.
There is one situation where the touchscreen trumps the rotary controller—Apple CarPlay. The integration of an iPhone into the automobile works far better when run via a finger versus an iDrive-type setup. This shouldn't be too surprising given that Apple's iOS software is based around their touchscreen iPhone and iPad. I much preferred CarPlay on my Focus RS compared to running it in a Mercedes-Benz E350d wagon I recently tested in England. Too many inputs are needed via the rotary controller or control pad on the steering wheel in the Benz when making your way through the CarPlay menu. I had to regularly stop myself from reaching toward a non-existent touchscreen. In the end, I gave up on CarPlay and relied on the excellent Mercedes satellite navigation, but I missed the Pandora integration with Apple's system.
Should manufacturers push Apple to develop different CarPlay software for non-touchscreen automobiles, or simply continue to fit Apple's existing CarPlay system as a marketing ploy and not worry about the shortcomings when run sans-touchscreen? BMW seems to have the fix by offering both an iDrive controller and a touchscreen on some of their models. You're able to ignore the touchscreen for the majority of functions, relying on the excellent iDrive rotary controller. Then simply reach for the screen when it comes to CarPlay. Problem solved. It may be the best setup on the market and the 2018 model year brings along more models so equipped. Plus, CarPlay is wireless on a BMW. No need to plug in via USB. Just make sure to have a cleaning cloth handy for the dreaded fingerprints.
I know my frustration toward touchscreens is not a universally appreciated view. Some touchscreen setups are better than others, but none work as well as the best rotary controller-based infotainment system. I'm also fully aware that the touchscreen isn't going anywhere. They are inexpensive and easy to update for new functions and features. I'll continue to love the touchscreen on my iPhone and iPad but loathe them in the automobile unless something drastic changes in the world of touch-controlled screens.