01-13 touchscreen display in a car

[Image above] An example of a touchscreen display in a car. Touchscreen displays are an increasingly standard feature in new car models, but do the advantages outweigh the safety concerns of distracted driving? Credit: plien, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Unless you’ve shopped for a new car recently, you may not realize how many cars now use touchscreens instead of physical buttons for basic controls.

The shift toward touchscreens in cars matches what has and is happening in other electronics, including computers, cameras, and information kiosks. However, while the benefits of touchscreens in these applications generally outweigh the drawbacks, the advantage of touchscreens in cars is not so clear—and may cause more safety concerns instead.

A brief history of digital displays in cars

The inclusion of digital displays in cars began notably in the 1980s, with the introduction of digital screens that displayed radio frequency.

“These screens were tiny, only an inch or two wide. By the mid-eighties, they were displaying additional information such as fuel consumption and temperature,” an article by The Globe and Mail explains.

By the end of the 1980s, digital screens had grown larger and started displaying navigation information as well, thanks in part to a dead reckoning navigation system developed by Etak. (Car navigation systems based on GPS first appeared in the 1990 Mazda Eunos Cosmo.)

The first touchscreen debuted in 1986, with the Buick Riviera. Unlike contemporary screens that use liquid crystal display technology, the Buick Riviera’s Graphic Control Center used a green-and-black cathode-ray-tube display. However, Buick discontinued the system in 1990 after owners found it onerous and distracting. Other car companies experienced the same pushback, so the technology remained relegated to a small number of high-end, expensive cars.

It wasn’t until the early 2010s that cars began widely featuring touchscreen displays again, a shift largely attributed to the fact consumers now were more comfortable with the technology. Today, touchscreen displays come standard in many new cars—data from IHS Markit says that 82% of vehicles sold in 2019 came with a touchscreen.

In the video below, employees at Five Star Car Stereo in Florida describe two common types of touchscreens used for car radios and demonstrate the difference in performance.

Credit: Five Star Car Stereo, YouTube

Growth of touchscreen display size

Just as smartphones have grown increasingly larger each year, so too have digital displays in cars.

“Having a 10-inch infotainment screen in your car was a big deal around the turn of the last decade,” an autoevolution article says. But now, “Screens smaller than 12.3-inch …. they’re really not that special anymore.”

Some touchscreens of notable size include the 2019 Ram 1500’s 12-inch screen, the Tesla Model 3’s 15-inch screen, and the forthcoming Cadillac Lyriq electric SUV’s 33-inch screen. None of these screens hold a torch, though, to what Mercedes-Benz has planned—a massive 56-inch “Hyperscreen” display for the upcoming EQS luxury electric sedan.

The Hyperscreen will consist of three separate screens covered by one solid piece of curved, anti-reflective Gorilla Glass that spans the entire dash. It will be powered by the Mercedes-Benz User Experience (MBUX), a voice-controlled infotainment system.

On its website, Mercedes says the display will feature a zero-layer setup, meaning the user will not have to scroll through submenus or give voice commands because the “most important applications are always offered in a situational and contextual way at the top level in view.”

Learn more about the Hyperscreen below in the recording of its world premiere.

Credit: Mercedes-Benz, YouTube

Touchscreens and distracted driving

Even though touchscreen displays are an increasingly common feature in new cars, it doesn’t mean they are in the public’s best interest.

An increasing number of studies show that digital infotainment systems are likely distracting enough to increase the risk for accidents, particularly when the display is a touchscreen.

Because of these safety concerns, some automakers, such as Mazda and Honda, are returning to physical controls for some of their cars. Mercedes hopes the zero-feature layer will reduce driver distraction, but that remains to be seen.