Opinion: Is car tech making us unhappy?

Will touchscreens, keyless theft and dodgy electronics end our love affair with the car?

Opinion: Is car tech making us unhappy?
Photo: Bigstock

Is owning an older car the key to a happy life? Not too old, you understand; nobody wants to return to the days when damp mornings were filled with the sound of cars refusing to start, and surviving a car crash was a game of chance.

In many ways, we’ve never had it so good. Our cars are cleaner and more fuel efficient than ever before, with an array of driver assistance systems designed to prevent a collision, plus protection for you and your loved ones should the worst happen.

For years, affordable car finance has made it easier to ‘own’ the sort of cars that would have been out of reach to most people as recently as the turn of the millennium.

Not that you need to spend a fortune to secure a car with the latest tech; even a humble hatchback could have a pair of digital screens, a seat to warm (and massage) your derriere and a place to wirelessly charge your smartphone.

The days of being grateful for an FM radio, heated rear window and cigarette lighter are behind us.

But have we reached peak happiness behind the wheel? Last year, research in the US suggested that owners are getting less happy with their cars – and modern tech is to blame.

For the first time in the 28-year history of JD Power’s Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) study, customer satisfaction has fallen for two years in a row, measured at 845 points out of 1,000.

Frank Hanley, senior director of auto benchmarking at JD Power, said: “The decline in consecutive years might look small, but it’s an indicator that larger issues may lie under the surface.

“Despite the technology and design innovations that manufacturers put into new vehicles, owners are lukewarm about them. While innovations like charging pads, vehicle apps and advanced audio features should enhance an owner’s experience, this is not the case when problems are experienced.

“This downward trajectory of satisfaction should be a warning sign to manufacturers that they need to better understand what owners really want in their new vehicles.”

In other words, new tech is great when a) it makes our lives easier, and b) it works. If it fails to tick these boxes, we’re better off without it.

Bring back buttons

The same goes for the increasing reliance on touchscreens to control basic functions in a car. Take the current Volkswagen Golf, so long a paragon of common sense and perceived dependability. The Mk8 comes with a pair of screens, with touch-sensitive controls instead of physical buttons.

Excellent for showroom glamour, but the Golf has been widely criticised by the motoring press and in customer satisfaction surveys. If only everything in life was as reliable as a physical button…

Help is on the horizon, with Euro NCAP telling car manufacturers to bring back buttons. From 2026, five important tasks – indicators, hazard warning lights, windscreen wipers, horn and SOS – must be controlled by proper switches for a car to gain a five-star safety rating.

Matthew Avery, director of strategic development at Euro NCAP, said: “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.”

Could we add heater, blowers and radio controls to the list, please?

Keyless car crime

The other issue is crime, with keyless technology contributing to a boom in car thefts. At the end of 2023, LV was predicting a record year for car thefts, aided by the ease in which criminals can acquire devices to bypass a car’s security system.

Granted, it was notoriously easy to steal a car in the 1980s and ’90s. The cost of insurance rocketed as car thieves and joyriders made off your prized motor with little more than a clothes hanger and some basic knowledge of a car’s wiring system. The next time you saw your missing car it was either found burnt out on a housing estate, nestled in a hedge or appearing on Police Camera Action!.

Car theft looks very different today, but keyless technology has left modern cars vulnerable to attack within a matter of seconds using equipment bought online. Both Jaguar Land Rover and Hyundai are having to plough resources into upgrades for commonly stolen models. Is this progress?

Our cars are better, but are we enjoying them more than we did in the 1990s and ’00s?

The struggle to adjust the cabin temperature on the move, touchscreens that fail at the most inopportune moment, the constant nagging of a lane departure warning system, LED headlights that blind you at night, LED brake lights that blind you in traffic, putting the keys in a fridge or microwave when you go to bed – these weren’t problems in 1998 when Ford launched the Focus, arguably one of the best cars of the last quarter of a century.

Indeed, with excellent ride and handling courtesy of Richard Parry-Jones, styling that still looks fresh today, ABS, airbags, decent crash protection and a complete absence of touchscreens or touch-sensitive buttons, the original Focus could be the key to happiness behind the wheel.

Maybe it’s time to go back to the future.


  1. Absolutely touch screens are very distracting especially when they suddenly stop working or you unknowingly touched something and things change. Becomes very uncomfortable and stressful.
    I have a GLC where have touch functions on the steering,on the Digital display panel and the 3rd one on the center console. To much got be very careful.

  2. I have physical buttons on my car and I love them. Its replacement is all touch screen and horrible. Some things simply cannot be improved upon. Meanwhile, the restoration of my Feb 1990 Disco 1 continues apace. No electronics at all on that car. Bomb proof engine and good all round performance. I seek nothing else although I do also love my Disco 2 🙂


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