It’s complicated

Cruise Control
Nikkormat EL, 55mm f/2.8 Micro-Nikkor, Fujifilm Fujicolor 200, 2016

There was a time when the only controls on a car’s steering column were the turn signal and the gear selector. Everything else was on the dashboard or at the driver’s feet. Readers over a certain age will especially remember the button on the floor that turned the bright headlights on and off.

When auto manufacturers started loading functions onto the turn-signal stalk, confused drivers complained. “I can’t even see the controls on that stalk!” they cried. Then other stalks began to be added to the steering column, such as this one that specifically operated the cruise control.

We’re all used to this now. After the initial learning curve with a new car, our fingers find the buttons and levers on these steering-column controls just fine. We don’t even have to look.

Now we’re all getting used to the large touch screens that dominate our dashboards. Turn on the air conditioning? Navigate the menus on the touch screen. Change the radio station? Menus. Bring up your map application? Menus.

Right now this seems to be a bridge too far. “How am I supposed to find anything on that screen while I’m driving down the road? I just want to turn up the heat.”

We all adapted to the steering-column controls. Nobody complains about them anymore. Will we similarly adapt to touch screens?

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46 responses to “It’s complicated”

  1. Dennis R Avatar
    Dennis R

    I’m 41, my dad being a Wheeler dealer gearhead I grew up driving and being around 40s/50s and 60s vehicles mostly. All that to say I hate driving most newer vehicles, I drive a 2022 Ford F600 service truck and can’t stand all the junk in there. Would love to see simplicity come back!!
    Hoping to finish up a 67 Plymouth valiant 3 on the tree to have again as my daily driver.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Ooh, three on the tree. That’s he-man driving right there.

      1. -Nate Avatar

        Knowing how to “Square Shift” a column mounted transmission should be mandatory but then I’m old .

        I too intensely dislike needing to take my eyes off the road for any reason when I’m MotoNot funny Bron ;

        1. -Nate Avatar

          WHAT THE F !? .

          I didn’t paste anything and now my screwed up reply cannot be edited .


          1. Jim Grey Avatar

            I fixed it.

        2. Jim Grey Avatar

          I’ve never had to shift a column-mounted transmission!

          1. -Nate Avatar

            It’s not fixed in any way .

            I meant to write column mounted shifter, some even had four speeds .


    2. Kodachromeguy Avatar

      My stepdad’s 1967 Mercedes 230 had a 4 on the tree. It was so refined, I clicked it with my fingertips. But the clutch was heavy. Still, my mom drove it with high heel shoes.

  2. matt Avatar

    No doubt people will adapt to the iCar nonsense.

    What I think about when I see that sort of thing, where everything’s operated via the big tablet in the dash: What happens when it fails? And it cost five grand to replace?

    It is indeed too far.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m about to find out. Literally last night I picked up a new car, and it has the big screen.

  3. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    I literal don’t know how to set half the things on my car…bought new in 2020. Sometimes I brush my hands across the steering wheel, and the whole display changes, and then I have to randomly hit buttons until it goes back. The manual is literally two and a half inches thick, I joke I needed to borrow a dolly to get it into my house. I have not a clue as to how half the stuff works. It is ridiculous. My 2005 Toyota Scion had exactly the correct amount of display computerization.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m pretty good at figuring out electronic stuff so I’m sure I’ll figure out my new car.

    2. Khürt L Williams Avatar

      Wait? You got a printed manual with your car? How quaint. I had expected a little card with a QR code to scan to connect to the online manual. 😃

  4. Marc Beebe Avatar

    Curiously this situation would seem to be illegal here where we’re not allowed to use phones in cars while driving. A few obvious, manual controls is far better. But that’s just the opinion of an old engineer who used to work in the industry and has been driving more types of vehicles for more years than most people ever would.
    My truck (2015 F150) is over-burdened with technology, most of which I ignore completely. Especially the false warnings about system failures that pop up on rough roads. At least I learned which steering wheel button to push to shut up those incorrect messages that blot out the worthwhile info otherwise displayed right in front of me. Really, I know when the trailer is connected and when it isn’t ’cause I’m the guy that hooks it up!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The thing I worry about is all the things that can fail with all of these electronic controls! I sort of miss the days when everything in the cabin was a mechanical switch or control.

  5. JR Smith Avatar

    I still haven’t gotten used to the controls on the steering column.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Give this man a foot-operated brights switch!!!

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        As I recall from my pre Japanese car driving experience, that would be the floor switch that would work approximately 18 months before it rusted solid from the salt dragged into the car in our northern climes!

  6. Andy Karlson Avatar
    Andy Karlson

    The important distinction I see between the controls on the wheel/stalk and the controls on the big screen is that the former can be operated without taking one’s eyes off the road, and the screen demands several seconds of inattentive driving every time you have to do anything with it.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes. It’s like changing a CD in the stereo used to be – no way to not take eyes off road for a second.

  7. seatacphoto1951 Avatar

    The self-driving car will end all of these irritations.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      And steal the joy of driving!

  8. Shirley B. Avatar
    Shirley B.

    For this reason I took some time to figure out what it was I wanted in a new car. Safety first, but knobs and levers instead of having to go to menus on a touch screen came second. So last year I chose a Honda Jazz (in the USA known as Fit). I just love it. Being able to adjust the air-conditioning and seat heating manually: for me that’s perfect.

    Of course the manual is very thick. I figured: getting to know how to use this car (with all it’s driver assist functionality) is like learning a new computer program. It will take some time, but it will probably help me a lot. So I spent a couple of hours in my car when I got it, to get to know it. Driving with all the assistance turned on makes driving much easier and less energy consuming. Knowing when to turn part of the assistance off also comes in handy.

    So take your time getting to know the new “computer on wheels”. You’ve been in IT long enough to figure it out.

    Enjoy the ride!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Fortunately, my new Jetta has knobs for the climate control, and knobs for volume and tuning. That’s a nice touch.

  9. DougD Avatar

    Yep, what I don’t like is they’re all different. We have 4 vehicles with cruise control, from 3 different manufacturers and when I want to use cruise I always have to find my glasses so I can read the buttons and re-learn how that particular car works.

    We have small screen cars, not the big screen that is currently fashionable. We’ll get there eventually, as always 5-10 years after everyone else.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I just bought a new Jetta GLI and it has a …medium screen I guess. Not the cinematic ones in some cars today.

  10. tbm3fan Avatar

    Since I don’t have to buy a car in the next 20 years I won’t have to concern myself with the issue of a big screen. Besides I’d be more likely to smash it then try to use it. To me the screen is a massive safety issue. When I am on the road, my safety is paramount, especially given how many brain dead drivers are on the road playing with something. Not every car has such screens at this time but when they do watch out. Hopefully insurance companies recognize this and price coverage where it needs to be just like health insurance is higher for smokers. I will stick with three dials on my dash for what I need. With four daily drivers I believe I am covered.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      IIRC you have a variety of different kinds of vehicle as your big four. What experience do I want to have behind the wheel today?

      1. tbm3fan Avatar

        It was the 65 F-100 today for the post office and a long fun drive. No screen and roll up/down windows with wing vents. In a short while the 2004 Focus for a grocery run. Two of the ten are getting rebuilt engine in one (the 67) and a new engine (the 98) built by me. The 98 will once again be a daily driver.

  11. fishyfisharcade Avatar

    As much as I like the features my new car brings, including the entertainment and information options, having to use menus is not one I favour. Most physical controls are tactile and can be used easily without taking your eye off the road. If I don’t look at the touch screen then who knows if I’ll be answering a call, or turning on Spotify?

    Thankfully, a lot of features are also still available from buttons on the steering wheel on our car, including the option to issue voice commands.

    Remember the days when all you needed was a bag of feed and a shovel for the droppings? :D

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, thank heavens for the steering-wheel buttons!

  12. NANCY STEWART Avatar

    Being pretty old, I would be happy to crank my windows up or down again …. and the only other thing I would require is a good radio. Being farmers, we have 2 pickup trucks …. a 2010 Sierra and a 2019 Colorado. The Sierra is still fairly simple. The Colorado has more technology stuff, and I miss the knobs and levers …. everything is on that darned screen. We just sold our 2010 Camaro a couple years ago as it was getting more difficult for my husband to get in and out of, but the dash display was still pretty simple to navigate. At our age we probably won’t be purchasing any more vehicles.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I guess you can still get a work truck with crank windows, but I think that’s it.

  13. Khürt L Williams Avatar

    Well. If it’s dangerous (or illegal) to use your smartphone while driving then isn’t it dangerous to use a touchscreen to raise the heat while driving?

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Good point!

  14. Peter Miller Avatar
    Peter Miller

    I have a 2017 Toyota RAV4 built in Japan — but the manual radio tuning button is on the right side of the radio — but it still has a CD player and a on/off button and volume control knob. Just enough tech but not too much…

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Nice. Old school!

  15. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    I have a car with one of the early touchscreens – I can use it to make a call or select some music. I find it a bit too distracting – you have to look at a touchscreen to use it, a knob or switch you can find and use without taking your eyes off the road.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m about to find out how distracting the touch screen is in my new car. Wish me luck.

      1. Steve Mitchell Avatar

        Good luck! Use while moving at your peril ;)

  16. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Just a timely entry, went on a fall color road trip of central Wisconsin with a buddy of mine yesterday, he rented a brand new car, a Tucson. We almost got in 4 different accidents with him weaving all over the road, in a light rain at 60+ miles an hour, trying to get stuff to work in the car through the screen. I actually feared for my life, I couldn’t believe he was just ignoring the road for vast amounts of time and just dickin’ around with the screen. I had to say “watch out” more than a few times. I predict a large number of rental car accidents with this craziness going on! I have to say it was actually kind of scared!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      This is really about discipline to not fart around with the controls of the car. I mean, seriously. If you want to learn the screen, pull over.

      1. Andy Umbo Avatar
        Andy Umbo

        Unlikely people are going to study for a long period of time to figure how to get stuff to work on a rental car; they’re just going to charge into traffic. Right or wrong, it’s just what’s going to happen. If you own the car, that’s a different story. You know, the transportation department got the Brit motorcycle business and the Harley company mad back in the day for mandating that motorcycles all shift one way, on the same side, and have the rear brake pedal on the other. The way they mandated was the Japanese way, based on the amount of motorcycles out there, and it was opposite the American and British way! It’s amazing that in this day and age, you can get in five cars and a bunch of stuff all operates differently. There should be mandated similarity of operational process. I remember that short period of time when keys locked into the lock, and you had to find and press a button to release it. I never heard of that, and got a rental car that had that, and it took me 10 minutes to figure out how to eat the key out of the lock, and all those mechanisms worked differently based on manufacturer!

  17. J P Avatar

    I have not yet graduated to a car with a touch screen. I am afraid that I will hate it.

    I had thought that cars had confusing controls, but I have been getting a crash course (not literally, thankfully) in figuring out the controls of several brands/eras of trucks. The newer ones are more like cars, but the older ones are all over the place.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I just did, having bought a new car last week. It’s taking some getting used to.

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