14th Nov 2022
Petrolted: On The Button
by David Edmonston [PetrolTed]
The founder of PistonHeads is back with a new series of PetrolTed columns.
Twitter ensnared me last week. Browsing for car related entertainment took me down a glovebox-shaped rabbit hole. The gist of the indignation seemed to be that Tesla had buried the option to open a glovebox into a third level menu.
The cries of the Teslarati don’t normally concern me. What does is the potential demise of a dear friend. The glovebox button should not be messed with. Burying a virtual button in a menu within the car's 'Infotainment system' is not acceptable – other manufacturers take note.
As a child of the ‘70s, the glovebox was an exciting treasure chest. A deep enough rummage would yield loose change for the sweet shop. Turning it over like an eager burglar would reveal the tyre pressure gauge, the washers, fuses and oily pliers that my dad insisted on carrying in case of emergency. Maps of Wales, more maps of Wales. Maybe even a pair of gloves.
Of course, these days it holds less allure and I rarely enter that magic space until I actually sell a car. Then I find a manual I've never read (and discover car features I didn't know I had), some old GB stickers and remnants of boiled sweets from that trip to Le Mans four years ago. Children still open gloveboxes when they get in a new car though. Stand with me people – we have an institution to protect here.
The demise of the button is no laughing matter. Many journalists have called out the frustration at feature migration from button to tablet. Screen-based menus for everything might make sound financial sense for bean counters, but not us button counters. You're killing our inner fighter pilot.
There's also a clear safety issue that has been called out by 'User Experience' experts who normally focus on checkout button colours. Trying to demist your windscreen shouldn't be like trying to find the network settings on a Windows laptop. iDrive, Connect4 or whatever the latest system is called shouldn't impede my ability to warm my sodden feet.
Cars from a few decades ago provided us with the secret thrills of dropping into the driver's seat and flicking switches up and down like a Top Gun cadet. Cooler with muscle memory alone, the ability to control that machine with a reassuring click was the ‘80s equivalent of a dopamine hit from a popular tweet. VW and BMW spent millions making their buttons click 'Germanically' to contrast with cheap clacks.
MINI got it right for a while, with pleasing rocker-style switches and the ultimate indulgence: roof-mounted switchgear. What I would have done for that in my XR2. For the sophisticated driver for whom a handbrake turn might seem a bit crass, a flick and a click above the mirror would please beyond measure.
Manufacturers played to this – most notably Saab with their Viggen narrative; polo-necked architects from the home counties enjoyed dashboards befitting a jet. Sadly, there lies a clue to the modern malaise. A modern airliner is a sea of screens. Not one poxy tablet balanced atop a cheap air vent – dozens of screens.
My desktop computer benefits from more than a healthy dose of VDU – on reflection, I think I'm still trying to live that dream. Put me in control of something complex please. Noddy cars with noddy control systems leave me wanting in the SR71 dream department.