'Screen fatigue': Buttons are back in these new electric vehicles

The minimalism trend in EVs may be over.

November 12, 2023, 6:02 AM

It's a phenomenon that's taking over electric vehicles: "Screen fatigue."

Drivers now traverse layers of screens to switch radio channels or turn on the heated seat. Digital dashboards seemingly extend for miles. Buttons and knobs are scarce -- even obsolete.

"A lot of EVs have gone the way of screens or capacitive switches," Ed Kim, a veteran automotive analyst at AutoPacific, told ABC News. "Buttons cost money and cost is a major issue because batteries are so expensive."

He added, "There is growing evidence by some consumers of 'screen fatigue.'"

According to a recent J.D. Power study, built-in infotainment systems are making motorists unhappy. These systems "are a prime example of a technology not resonating with today's buyers," the study said.

Less than half of owners prefer to use their vehicle's built-in system for common functions like phone calls, voice recognition and navigation, J.D. Power found. Moreover, only 56% of owners prefer to use their vehicle's built-in system to play audio, down from 70% in 2020, the study said.

"Tesla has gone toward the minimalist direction and many legacy automakers have followed suit with fewer buttons and knobs," Jared Rosenholtz, editor at large at the blog CarBuzz, told ABC News.

The minimalism trend may be over. Several automakers are building electric models that mimic the luxuries (and buttons) found in their gas-powered equivalents. A #savethebuttons campaign has even started to gain followers on social media.

Andre Ravinowich, Genesis' senior manager of product planning, said it would be difficult to tell apart the Electrified GV70 from the internal combustion engine facsimile. The sport utility vehicle "doesn't scream at you that it's an EV," he said, adding that the only clues are the grille, charge port and unique stitch pattern in the SUV's leather.

The Electrified GV70 is the Korean brand's third EV.

Ravinowich said the company chose buttons and knobs that assisted the driver -- not distracted them -- and designed interiors that amplified the brand's "beauty of white space" ethos.

"An EV is still a luxury vehicle and needs to be refined and elegant," he said. "It's not a good experience to dig through two layers to change the heat inside the car."

The interior of the Genesis Electrified GV70 closely resembles the gas-powered GV70.

Kim praised Genesis for its "fantastic interiors," adding that Audi's Q8 e-tron SUV and the Porsche Taycan deserve credit too for their premium materials. These brands have not sacrificed interior quality to offset expensive powertrains, he noted.

The interior of the Q8 e-tron electric SUV.

Rosenholtz called out the BMW i7 electric sedan for its long list of sublime amenities.

"The BMW i7 is easily my favorite EV interior right now," he told ABC News. "You can get it with cashmere seats. It's available with a 31-inch theater screen in the back where you can watch Netflix and recline with a built-in footrest. Unless you hit the start button, there would be no way to tell from the driver seat if you were in a BMW 7 Series or an electric i7."

The BMW i7's entertainment system includes a 31.3-inch screen for passengers in the rear.

Alex Dabrowski, the i7's product manager, said many customers are choosing the pricey rear executive lounge seating package that includes massage and ventilated seats that recline.

"We went all out with interior design and upholstery choices and fit and finish," he told ABC News. "The i7 at its core is a premium luxury sedan. At the end of the day, the i7 is still a 7 Series, the flagship of the BMW portfolio. The i7 just happens to be electric."

Moreover, the i7 comes with automatic door technology that opens and closes the front and rear doors with the push of a button.

"The i7 provides a sense of calm for the driver," Dabrowski said.

The i7 is the "pinnacle of comfort," according to BMW.

Porsche is already reversing course, adding back switches in its latest Cayenne model. Porsche's director of user experience, Ivo van Hulten, conceded earlier this year that the German company may have pushed the no-button tide too far with the Taycan.

"Maybe [the Taycan interior] was so digital that for this generation we learned that we want to add a little bit more analog flavor again," he told The Drive.

The lack of buttons and premium interiors may not matter to all drivers, though. Kim noted that price and range continue to impact sales of EVs, which have been waning in recent months. Ford, Hyundai, Lucid and Tesla have been cutting prices or offering rebates to attract buyers.

"Price is absolutely an enormous issue. It's the No. 1 reason why people do not get an EV," Kim said.

He argued that recent headlines on the falling consumer demand for EVs are misleading.

"We are seeing some hints of incentives on EVs, but growing inventories are happening across the board, even with ICE vehicles," he said. "EV sales are where we've been forecasting and still growing very rapidly."

Drop-down theater systems, extra-plush headrests, gorgeous ambient lighting and a return of buttons may still not be enough to close the gap between Tesla, the No. 1 seller of EVs, and the competition, Rosenholtz said.

"There are several EVs that are less expensive and have superior interior quality than a Tesla but they do not go as far on a charge," he explained.

Kim said automakers now have proof that EVs can be high tech, glamorous and come with all the gadgets that drivers depend on daily.

"Consumers are tired of having to do everything via the screen," he said.

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