Car designers could be sent back to the drawing board by a German court ruling that giant touchscreens in new cars are a distracting device similar to mobile phones.
Manufacturers are replacing buttons with touchscreens, simplifying cabin design while meeting the expectations of buyers accustomed to engaging with technology through a flat glass surface.
Mercedes is replacing many buttons with a huge screen in its next S-Class, Ferrari’s new Roma substitutes many conventional controls with a touchscreen, and mainstream cars such as the next Volkswagen Golf are adopting near-buttonless cabins.
But Tesla was the first car maker to truly embrace the potential of touchscreens, particularly in the Model 3 sedan. The electric car has a huge 15-inch display in the centre of the dashboard which serves as the car’s speedometer, stereo, climate control unit, navigation screen, gaming console and much more.
You even use it to open the glovebox or control the speed of the car’s windscreen wipers.
Which is why a German driver blamed his Tesla for a crash in March which attracted international attention this week due to analysis by a German legal blog.
A translated version of the article said the driver drove into an embankment and collided with a network node stationing sign and several trees when they tried to change the speed of a Tesla’s windscreen wipers.
The Tesla has a physical switch on the indicator stalk to activate the windscreen wipers, but increasing or decreasing their speed requires drivers to tap through options on its touchscreen.
The German court found that this process requires “significantly more attention from the driver” than when operating the windshield wiper with the conventional fittings.
Fined €200 ($330) for using a distracted device while driving, the Tesla owner faced the same penalty as a driver caught checking their Facebook feed while driving.
The case could put manufacturers on notice when designing next-generation cars expected to divert even more functionality to touchscreen or voice-based controls.
It will be received warmly at Mazda, a brand that pulled touchscreens out of the latest Mazda3 and CX-30 hatchbacks, believing that they are less safe than conventional buttons and dials.
A British study published in March found drivers interacting with popular smartphone mirroring services such as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto were more impaired than people drinking alcohol or smoking cannabis.