Stalwarts of the dashboard for generations, buttons and knobs are becoming endangered species as automakers cast them aside for futuristic, Apple-inspired alternatives.
The most eager button-slayer has been Ford Motor Co., whose MyFord Touch system combines audio, navigation, communication and climate controls. Under relentless criticism from consumer surveys and reviewers, Ford backtracked a bit and now is bringing back some of the buttons it had told drivers were things of the past.
Despite that, the trend away from physical buttons and knobs seems to be accelerating. Ford's plunging quality ratings have not deterred other automakers from following similar paths to attract shoppers who expect their cars to be as stylish and advanced as their smartphones or tablets.
American Honda brags that its latest Acura MDX has just nine buttons on its "glass cockpit" center stack, down from 41 on the previous model.
The new Cadillac ATS and XTS sedans eschew traditional buttons entirely for a flat, glossy panel dotted with cutting-edge sliders and touch-sensitive areas that respond by vibrating gently. For Chevrolet, General Motors is eliminating about a dozen buttons with its MyLink system, which connects to a driver's smartphone.
Tesla Motors goes even further with the Model S sedan, consolidating the controls for almost everything, including the headlights and door locks, into a huge, 17-inch touch screen.
But while those sleek interiors look impressive on a dealership lot, they can become maddening and distracting on bumpy roads or at 70 mph, critics say.
"It's hard to beat the tried-and-true knob," says Kelsey Mays, industry editor for Cars.com. "Automakers are going in this direction because consumers want their cars to behave more like their smartphones.
"But in a vehicle, you have to focus on this area, position your finger and potentially even take your eyes off the road to interact with this panel that's supposed to be futuristic."
Touch screens help resolve the dilemma created as automakers pack more features into each vehicle. Filling prime dashboard real estate with a separate button to control each item would be impractical, confusing and an aesthetic nightmare.
Plus, the screens can be updated via software to fix bugs or ensure compatibility with phones introduced after the vehicle was built.
Automakers are using touch screens and flat-panel controls to make even their cheapest models seem more luxurious. The next-generation Honda Fit, which goes on sale in Japan this fall and the United States next year, will have two large displays that resemble black sheets of glass when the car is off.
Despite the negative reviews, dealers say systems such as MyFord Touch do impress shoppers and help steal customers from other brands.
"Overall, it's pulled in buyers," says Mike Chiappetta, sales manager at Golf Mill Ford in Niles, Ill., a large dealership near Chicago. "People get excited about it, and that turns into sales. It's been a huge, huge hit for Ford."