Tesla Autopilot - view of dashboard and touchscreen

Cars will need buttons not just touchscreens to get a 5-star Euro NCAP safety rating

  • March 6, 2024

The consumer vehicle safety rating organisation Euro NCAP has announced changes to its protocols from next year to require physical controls for key functions.

Matthew Avery, director of strategic development at Euro NCAP, told The Sunday Times newspaper: “The overuse of touchscreens is an industry-wide problem, with almost every vehicle-maker moving key controls onto central touchscreens, obliging drivers to take their eyes off the road and raising the risk of distraction crashes.

“New Euro NCAP tests due in 2026 will encourage manufacturers to use separate, physical controls for basic functions in an intuitive manner, limiting eyes-off-road time and therefore promoting safer driving.”

Under the new rating scheme, which is due to come into force from January 2026, manufacturers won’t be able to achieve the highest safety ratings if they don’t provide proper, physical switches for certain functions including indicators, hazard lights, sounding the horn, operating windscreen wipers and activating the eCall SOS function.

The regulation of how drivers interact with vehicle controls (the Human Machine Interface or HMI) is surprisingly weak in the European Union. The European Commission issued an update to a formal ‘recommendation’ on the subject in 2008 but ETSC is not aware of any action being taken against a manufacturer for not abiding by the code. At its heart the recommendation says “an important overall requirement can be simply stated as ‘Do no harm’. This means that the system should enhance or at least not reduce road safety.”

Frank Mütze, vehicle safety expert at ETSC said:
“The EU’s voluntary guidelines are not working because current touchscreens and infotainment systems are distracting and unsafe. EuroNCAP requiring physical controls for some functions is a welcome step in the right direction. But we now need EU regulators to follow-up and adopt legally binding requirements for all vehicles.”

Touchscreens and distracting infotainment systems now dominate almost all new car models. Tests carried out by a Swedish motoring magazine in 2022 found it took drivers much longer to carry out basic tasks on touchscreens compared to older cars with physical controls.

Research by TRL in the UK in 2020 found that mobile phone interfaces for car touch screens, known as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, reduced reaction times as much as drink or drug driving. Earlier research has shown that infotainment systems made by car companies are even more distracting.