Automakers Risk Lower Safety Ratings If They Don’t Bring Back Buttons

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The proliferation of huge in-car screens has been done at the expense of old-school buttons. However, physical controls might make a comeback if automakers want to earn maximum safety ratings from Euro NCAP for their cars. They probably do, right? It’s an excellent selling point after all. New rules slated to come into effect in January 2026 will deduct points from vehicles that don’t have certain traditional controls.

The European New Car Assessment Programme intends to downgrade the safety ratings of newly tested cars that don’t have buttons, stalks, or dials for the following functions: turn signals, hazard lights, horn, windscreen wipers, and emergency call. The latter is known as the eCall function and has been mandatory in the European Union for several years. It automatically dials the local emergency number in the event of a serious car accident.

Ineos Grenadier
Ineos Grenadier

It’s a good start, but the list could be even better by adding separate controls for the climate settings. Not all automakers are slapping iPads on their dashboards and calling it a day. Hyundai is putting more traditional controls into their cars and other brands such as Toyota haven’t really abandoned the straightforward layout of having shortcuts on the dashboard.

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Ineos is probably overdoing it with buttons and knobs for just about everything, as seen in the adjacent images of the Grenadier SUV with its rad cockpit-like interior. Skoda has found what may be the perfect compromise to please both accountants and car owners. The new Superb has three physical dials with built-in customizable screens, allowing you to tweak settings using the same dials.

2024 Skoda Superb
2024 Skoda Superb

Euro NCAP’s director of strategic development Matthew Avery explains why this decision has been taken to penalize automakers that make drivers rely almost exclusively on screens:

“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. 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.”

It is a safety concern since you’re forced to take your eyes off the road and navigate through the many submenus of a modern infotainment system. Buttons and knobs are always in the same spot on the dashboard, providing intuitive operation. The reliance on screens is caused by bean counters, even though automakers will never admit that it’s cheaper to put screens instead of buttons.

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As good as the news might seem, it’s important to note Euro NCAP can’t effectively force automakers that sell cars in Europe to bring back regular controls. It’s an independent crash test body, so it can’t mandate companies to revert to buttons and knobs. Such a decision would have to come from the European Union.

Nevertheless, we reckon all automakers are keen on achieving maximum five-star ratings, so they’ll do their best to comply with the new regulations. Ideally, the list will grow beyond those five requirements planned for 2026. It’ll be interesting to see whether changes made to cars sold in EU countries will have repercussions on the equivalent models in North America and other markets. Making two different interiors for the same car isn’t ideal from a business point of view, so maybe customers outside of the EU will benefit from these tweaks, provided automakers will want to comply.

In an interview with Automotive News Europe at CES 2023, BMW CEO Oliver Zipse said he’s “absolutely convinced” huge screens will be outlawed in a decade or so: “In 10 years, that is gone. Probably the regulator will not allow it.” He went on to add “If you have to look down to operate your car, we think it’s a big mistake.” It remains to be seen whether that will happen or not, but Euro NCAP’s new legislation is a step in the right direction.

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