Dashboard of the Future Mostly Loses Buttons

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Is it time to proclaim the Death of the Button? 

If you climb into any concept car of recent vintage -- such as the BMW i Vision Future Interaction, Acura Precision or VW T-Cross Breeze -- you will gaze upon pristine expanses of dashboard unsullied by traditional buttons or knobs. 

Now, engineers are starting to adopt that look for production models. 

Over the next five years, global sales of steering-wheel controls, speech recognition, touch screens and gesture controls will jump sharply, according to a study by IHS Automotive. 

Here's the IHS forecast of annual sales increases in that time, by category:

• Steering-wheel switches, up nearly 11 percent 

• Speech recognition, up 12 percent 

• Touch screens, up 13 percent 

• Gesture controls, up 35 percent 

• Traditional control buttons, up 2 percent 

From left, dashboards in the Acura Precision Concept, BMW i Vision Future Interaction and VW T-Cross Breeze suggest a minimalist future.

According to IHS analyst Mark Boyadjis, motorists prefer cockpits that sport the same user controls as their smartphones, game consoles and tablets. 

"Consumer electronics are a leading indicator for [cockpit controls] in the car," Boyadjis said. "Touch screens, for example, are well-established in cars today. We've had them in consumer electronics for a long time." 

It's a far cry from the 1980s, when the Cadillac Allante's dashboard was cluttered with 40-plus buttons. The goal, of course, is to adopt controls that will allow motorists to keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel. 

But that's easier said than done. Last month, J.D. Power's annual Vehicle Dependability Study revealed that infotainment, navigation and audio systems generate 20 percent of the problems reported in 3-year-old vehicles. 

Balky Bluetooth pairing of smartphones, unreliable voice recognition and hard-to-use navigation systems were among the 10 most frequently reported problems, according to J.D. Power. 

Automakers have taken these complaints to heart. After Ford Motor Co. received numerous complaints about the usability of its MyFord Touch user interface, it introduced a redesigned version with eight control buttons under the console screen. 

But these are temporary setbacks, Boyadjis argues. He points to the results of an IHS survey that asked 4,000 car shoppers how they would prefer to use their smartphones while driving. 

Seventy-five percent favored the vehicle's speech recognition, 70 percent wanted to use the center console's touch screen, and 69 percent preferred steering-wheel controls. Respondents were allowed to choose more than one option. 

And that's why automakers continue to shift from conventional buttons to touch screens, steering-wheel controls, voice recognition and gesture controls. 

Which companies will profit from this trend? While more than a dozen suppliers are battling for a niche in the market for cockpit controls, IHS estimates that six -- Valeo, Kostal, Tokai Rika, Preh, Delphi and TRW -- control over half the market. 

For Germany's Preh GmbH -- maker of cockpit controls, factory automation and electric-vehicle battery management devices -- the cockpit has been a boom market. 

If you own a BMW 7 series, you've twiddled a Preh-supplied iDrive control knob, while buyers of the new Mercedes E class will press Preh's steering-wheel switches. 

Last year, Preh reported global sales of $864 million, up 25 percent. Cockpit controls generated roughly 80 percent of that increase, said company CEO Christoph Hummel. 

In a March 11 interview with Automotive News, Hummel said he isn't ready to consign traditional buttons and knobs to the trash bin.

"I think I would like to control the temperature by using a knob rather than going down into two or three menus to find a function," Hummel said. "I expect some buttons will remain, but there will be fewer." 

The idea is to give motorists a choice. Some might prefer voice commands, while others would opt for touch screens or traditional knobs. "It depends on my mood and what I want to do," Hummel said. 

So Hummel -- and Boyadjis, for that matter -- isn't prepared to write off buttons just yet. But if the latest crop of concept cars are any indication, Allante-style button arrays are a thing of the past.

This article originally appeared on Automotive News

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