Is a return to switches and dials in car interiors imminent?

Apr 23, 2024

In what some might regard as a statement of the obvious, independent crash test body Euro NCAP has warned car makers to reduce their use of touchscreen-based controls or lose safety rating points.

Under the new rules from Euro NCAP which will come into force from January 2026, manufacturers will be docked points if they do not provide proper, physical switchgear for certain functions inside the cabin.

To begin with, the functions requiring traditional switches will include indicators, hazard lights, the horn, windscreen wipers and the ability to activate the eCall SOS function. Some of these operations are available only via touchscreens in some new models.

More touchscreens than switches

As a leading manufacturer of chrome plated plastic components, many of which have featured in the interiors of some of the world’s leading marques, the move to touchscreens, has been disappointing from a purely business perspective.

But despite arguments that touchscreens are more familiar for younger drivers, there remains the potential for distraction as it is harder to locate the appropriate icon to touch, compared to a switch whose location never changes.

The manufacturers argue that touchscreens and the systems that run them ensure regular updates via over-the-air software downloads are possible. Typically, a touchscreen is cheaper to add new functions to than make a physical switch, that meets the usual reliability demands.

Of course there are many who argue the move to touchscreens offers manufacturers the potential for more profit. Offering additional features, such as automated Park Assist or Matrix LED headlights on a subscription, only requires touch icons on screen, rather than unused buttons hard-wired into the interior.

Only advice and not new laws

Euro NCAP is an independent organisation, which means the new rules only apply to their ratings for cars and not the actual manufacture of models. However, manufacturers regularly quote safety ratings in their advertising and the public take seriously the Euro NCAP rating.

Many screens require the driver to take their eyes off the road to select some functions, whereas the position of a specific switch can be learned and remembered. That switch can also be very tactile, with a satin or textured chrome finish to help it stand out on the interior.

It is common sense that any feature of a car that increases the risk of distracting the driver when the car is on the move, is not a good idea and it appears this warning from the testers behind the Euro NCAP safety ratings recognises this fact.

Because we can doesn’t mean we should

The Tesla Model 3 saloon has an impressive 96% score for protecting occupants in a crash, winning it a five-star safety rating from Euro NCAP, but the latest version removes the steering column stalks and has the indicators controlled by buttons on the steering wheel.

Functions operated previously via simple switches, such as turning on fog lights or adjusting the wing mirrors have been added to the interior touchscreen of the Volvo EX30, proving that most manufacturers believe there are benefits to the technology.

As a manufacturer of injection-moulded plastic components, designed to be plated with a satin chrome finish for interior trim options, the team here at Borough backs call to a return to more traditional switches and buttons for important functions within the cabin.

Given the potential impact of these new guidelines on the future sales of technology filled cars, if you are a designer of automotive interiors, assessing your options for the future return of physical switches to match interior trim, please get in touch.

The team here at Borough will talk you through the potential options and how we can support your work as you develop the new generation of interiors that can achieve the highest Euro NCAP safety ratings of all.