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New Fords to Be Full of Knobs

1999 Ford Crown Victoria LX interior dash

Courtesy Ford Motor Company

1999 Ford Crown Victoria LX interior dash

Some things, you don’t mess with. Telephones have 12 keys arranged in four rows of three—and they always will. (I’m looking at you, 11-year-old Nokia phone.) Video-game controllers always have four buttons arranged in a diamond. The efforts of August Dvorak aside, I am writing this post on a keyboard with the traditional QWERTY layout.

It would appear you can add “car radios should always have knobs” to that list. The Ford Motor Co. (F) is said to be restoring some physical controls to dashboards after the company’s MyFord Touch system was supposed to do away with those knobs and buttons in favor of a more flexible, versatile, touchscreen interface.

MyFord Touch was never without some controversy. First introduced in 2011, the system—at least in theory—was supposed to rationalize all the new services and data that could inform (or distract) a driver. This wasn’t necessarily a terrible idea—after all, dashboards once just had some instruments, a radio, and climate controls. Today’s drivers have navigation, cell-phone service, and satellite radio—not to mention text messages, streaming-music services, and live weather and sports updates. So a touchscreen could reconfigure itself to whatever function was desired, transforming from a radio display to a climate-control panel in an instant. Dozens of single-purpose buttons, switches, and knobs could thus be removed from a car’s control panel, replaced by an infinitely customizable touchscreen.

With touchscreens, though, you can’t feel where you’re touching. Think about the way you drive: If you need to adjust the radio volume, you have a muscle memory as to where the knob is. You can find it without looking. Once your fingers reach the knob, you know how much twist is needed to make things louder of softer. The same is true for adjusting temperature controls.

Take those physical cues away and replace them with a flat, featureless touchscreen, and you don’t really know what you’re feeling; there’s nothing to feel. That means you have to look at where your hand is going. This is tricky because you’re also responsible for moving a couple of tons of glass and metal at tens of miles an hour, and your eyes play a central role in making sure that this endeavor occurs without incident.

Apart from tactile issues, MyFord Touch has been plagued with reliability problems. The system runs on Microsoft’s (MSFT) Auto 4.0 operating system, which has had a tendency to freeze up and require a restart. PC users already know how annoying it is to have to restart their computer; imagine how frustrating it is when you’re going 70 miles per hour on I-80. That’s the nice thing about mechanical controls: No one ever had to reboot a radio knob.

MyFord Touch isn’t going away. Ford has said it will modify it, but the feature will continue in some form. There are simply too many things we want to do in our cars for single-use displays and buttons. Until our cars can drive themselves while we browse Spotify, carmakers will have to find the right mix of mechanical controls, voice activation, and touchscreens to manage the information overflow.

Grobart is a senior writer for Bloomberg Businessweek and the managing editor of Bloomberg Digital Video. Follow him on Twitter @samgrobart.

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