Tesla is chasing physical buttons, and it’s not the most sensible idea

Tesla has removed the switches from the new Model S and X, but that would only be the start. According to a source close to Tesla’s supply chains in China, the Model 3 and Model Y would exchange their stalks for touch buttons.

Tesla Model S Blanket // Source: Tesla

If you’ve ever driven a Tesla electric car, especially a Model 3 or Model Y, you’ve certainly been surprised by the dashboard. Small buttons are integrated into the steering wheel, there are two switches behind the steering wheel and everything else is controlled by the large 15-inch touchscreen in the middle of the center console. You’ll only find plastic where you instinctively look for controls for the climate control, audio system, or any function.

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Tesla Model 3 Rear-wheel Drive (2022)

On a Model 3 and Model Y, the left stalk is primarily used for the turn signals, but it can also be used to activate or flash the car’s high beams. The button on the end of the stalk brings up the wiper controls. As for the stalk on the right, it is used to change gears, to activate the Autopilot and to put the vehicle in park mode. The button can also be used to activate the emergency braking of the vehicle by holding it down.

Touch buttons on the steering wheel, goodbye to the stalks

According to ChrisZheng001a source close to Tesla’s supply chains in China, the Model 3 and Model Y would be entitled to a new steering wheel in 2023. The new steering wheel would follow what has already been done on the new Model S, with the replacement of the switches by touch buttons on the steering wheel.

Tesla Model S
The interior of the Tesla Model S // Source: Tesla

It could also look like the steering wheel of the Tesla Semi. This electric truck has no switches, it has the same control buttons on the steering wheel and the speed management (forward, reverse or neutral) is done on the touch screen.

The interior of the Tesla Semi with the two huge screens // Source: Tesla

Logic to remove physical controls

In Tesla’s logic, it seems logical to remove the physical buttons. Firstly, because it allows economies of scale and simplifies production. In addition, the American manufacturer has invested heavily in its Autopilot, to automate driving as much as possible.

Tesla Christmas Update –  Frandroid –  IMG_1444
The Model 3 and Model Y interface has already been redesigned in December 2021 // Source: Frandroid

Another argument in favor of centralized touchscreen-based controls is that the functions are not bound by physical controls, the system can continually be updated — it is also undeniable that it allows for a minimalist and uncluttered appearance of the dashboard.

All tactile is not necessarily easy to use and safe

Even after several months of driving a Tesla Model 3, using the central touchscreen isn’t as easy as it looks. You cannot navigate the screen from the steering wheel controls, the screen is often the only option, despite the presence of the voice assistant which remains very perfectible.

It is enough for a contact to call to be present several times in your directory to complicate a simple oral request, for example. The same is true for playing music, doing a navigation search, managing the ventilation, etc. Using the screen is essential in many cases. Still, no matter how intuitive the screen, a touchscreen doesn’t feel as quick and intuitive as turning a knob to turn down the heat.

Recently, a study by the Swedish car magazine Vi Bilägare shows that physical buttons are much faster to use than touchscreens. By extension, buttons are less distracting than touchscreens and you’ll spend less time looking away from the road.

The study in question included a dozen vehicles — the majority were newer cars whose functions are largely performed via touchscreens — including the BMW iX, Tesla Model 3, SEAT Leon, MG Marvel R and the Dacia Sandero, but also a 2005 Volvo V70 with traditional physical controls.

To perform this study, the mechanism was the same for all cars. They were traveling at 110 km/h, so you had to turn on the heated seats, increase the temperature, start the defroster, turn on the radio… The study showed that it only took drivers 10 seconds on the old Volvo, so that it took around three times as long for drivers in the BMW iX, at 30.4 seconds, and up to 44.9 seconds on the MG Marvel R.

MG Marvel R
The interior of an MG Marvel R // Source: MG

Increasing the time spent using the most basic functions of a car can be dangerous. In the study, they went so far as to calculate the distance each car traveled while users manipulated the controls. This ranged from just 306 meters with the 2005 Volvo cd, to as high as 1,372 meters with the MG Marvel R.

It’s pretty logical, however long you might take to do something, the physical buttons let you do it by touch. Which means you don’t necessarily have to take your eyes off the road.

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