Why today's high-tech cars can drive you crazy

There's no denying that it's a touch-screen world: ATMs, smartphones, tablets, even laptop computers invite you to let your fingers do the tapping. But one venue is having trouble adapting to tactile tech: the automobile.

Two recent test drives -- one with Ford's 2014 Fiesta and another with Hyundai's 2014 Equus -- crystalized the different and sometimes confusing choices facing designers and drivers.

Ford has already endured its own Buttongate controversy. After being on the cutting edge of connected car systems, allowing smartphone apps in the dashboard and putting basic voice recognition into mainstream vehicles with its Sync and MyFord Touch systems, critics were giving the automaker a hard time. The controls were too complicated, and rather than feeling empowered with various control options -- voice commands, touch screen, or steering column buttons -- many drivers found it all too much candy for a nickel.

'It's like the iPhone versus the older Blackberry.'

— Mike Hichme, engineering manager for Cadillac's Cue system

Consequently, the Ford has added back volume and tuning knobs to the Fiesta (starting at $14,000) and other vehicles. Apparently, those were two adjustments that did not lend themselves to on-screen sliders.

Meanwhile, Hyundai's top model, the new 2014 Equus (starting at around $61,000), for all its luxury appointments eschews the touch screen. It's got a center-console LCD -- a big one, in fact, at 9.2 inches diagonally -- but it's not touch-sensitive. Instead, the driver uses a slew of buttons and a dial on the dash and center arm rest to switch between functions. There are also steering wheel buttons for changing the display and using Hyundai's Bluelink services.

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So which is better, the touch screen or button controls?

On the Fiesta, even though I've tested several MyFord Touch systems, I was initially confused by the fact that I could make some changes using buttons, but others required reaching forward to tap the screen. I still prefer the steering wheel-mounted control buttons, but it takes practice to become adept with them.

And there are problems with LCD screens. They can be balky, often lacking the feedback of a switch that clicks to let you know it's been engaged. The screens can also be difficult to see with polarized sunglasses. Perhaps worse of all, center-mounted screens require drivers to lean forward to tap out commands; that's not a safe maneuver when you're negotiating a clover leaf.

Conversely, just putting buttons on the dash doesn't necessarily make it instantaneously intuitive. In the Equus, I still had to take a few minutes to study the layout, and I did find myself distracted looking down at the screen -- and the buttons -- to see what was going on. There's a haptic switch on the steering column, but it took some getting used to as well.

If drivers are confused about all the new controls, so are manufacturers. BMW has a very complicated dial control that it has been tweaking for years. Mercedes has traditionally avoided touch displays, while Cadillac has jumped on the touch-screen trend. Its Cue sytem is designed to emulate an iPad and has been on the market for about a year.

"But there hasn't been a resounding cry to add buttons back," Mike Hichme, Cue's engineering manager said. Hichme noted that automakers now update their systems via software in response to customer feedback.

The fact that you can change the dashboard screen based on driver response is a definite advantage over fixed buttons. And for all the braying about how physical switches are better in cars (like those push buttons on 8-track tape decks), the fact is that they are not going to suffice. There are simply too many features, information sources, and entertainment options in cars now, from Pandora to navigation, Yelp to iHeartRadio. If we go back to buttons, the dashboard is going to look like the instrument panel of a jet fighter. (Indeed, car manuals now can stretch to more than 400 pages.)

As computer tech people would say, clearly a new user interface is needed. It can take hours to learn all the basics of how to, say, turn up the A/C or switch off adaptive cruise control in a new car. And the perfect voice recognition or motion sensitive control hasn't been invented yet. But perhaps the touch screen isn't the right solution for some drivers.

"It's like the iPhone versus the older Blackberry," Hichme said. "There are people that just have to have the physical keyboard."

And we all know how that battle worked out.

Follow John R. Quain on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at J-Q.com.