Joystick-Style Steering Wheel Controls May Be Virtually Standardized: Toyota Rep

Touchscreens may be regulated out of existence due to their distraction hazard. Physical buttons and controls on the steering wheel may have to do.

byJustin Hughes|
Toyota News photo

We've covered in detail how infotainment systems are distracting, cause crashes, and are only getting worse by adding e-commerce and advertisements. Some manufacturers are starting to use a standard set of steering wheel buttons to control infotainment functions rather than distracting touchscreens, according to a Toyota representative. (Assuming the cars even have a steering wheel.)

Manufacturers are switching to a joystick style push-button controller on the left side of the steering wheel these days, according to a company product specialist at the New England International Auto Show. Numerous manufacturers have recognized the issue coming from a wide variety of infotainment control inputs that are different in every car, even throughout a single manufacturer's product range. Toyota is working toward a consistent steering wheel control system expecting the now-traditional touchscreen to be banned at some point.

It's not just Toyota, either. On the left is the steering wheel button setup from my own 2015 Subaru WRX. On the right is the same part on a 2018 WRX I sat in at the show. Not only have more controls been added, but a joystick style control with a center selection button has been added, as well as different music controls. This is exactly what the Toyota rep was talking about but on a Subaru, and not a joint venture product between the two companies like the 86 and BRZ (which, incidentally, has also added steering wheel controls where none existed before). This system is much easier to operate while driving. It's intuitive and can be operated by feel, with the driver glancing at the screen only to verify the correct control inputs rather than seeking them out in the beginning.

Steering wheel controls also solve another problem drivers often complain about: the lack of physical knobs and buttons for frequent functions like the volume control or tuning dial. The tactile feedback of these steering wheel buttons provides that while still removing the functionality from the stereo itself.

Of course, with more and more cars implementing Alexa as a standard voice control interface, steering wheel controls may also be a passing phase along the march of progress. Voice control, if it works properly, is even less distracting than buttons of any kind. But the key phrase is "if it works properly." Even Alexa still has issues, as David Bowman found out instructing HAL to open the pod bay doors.

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