Europe To Automakers: Bring Back Buttons If You Want A Good Safety Rating

2 months, 3 weeks ago - 06. March 2024, Inside EVs
Europe To Automakers: Bring Back Buttons If You Want A Good Safety Rating
Plus, Tesla still owns the charging market, and Polestar says EV doubters are falling into an 'incredible trap.'

The other day, I was driving my wife's Tesla Model 3 on the highway with Autopilot engaged. Her car has the latest vehicle update installed, which means that Autopilot is a bit... noisy. I noticed that every time I had to dig through the car's menu to find a specific setting, Autopilot would notice my eyes had focused on the infotainment screen and begin nagging me to pay attention—something that it absolutely should do. But that got me thinking: shouldn't these controls be easier to find that my eyes should never leave the road?

Welcome to Critical Materials, your daily roundup for all things EV and automotive tech. Today, we're diving into Europe's push for the return of physical controls. Plus, Tesla still owns the public charging market, and Polestar CEO's claims that anybody doubting EVs is falling into an "incredible trap."

30%: Europe Pushing for Return of Physical Buttons in the Name of Safety

The European New Car Assessment Programme (NCAP) is the continent's auto safety rating system, lot unlike what our National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does here. And Europe will soon require automakers to make certain functions accessible via physical buttons in order for cars to attain the highest possible safety ratings.

Beginning in 2026, the Euro NCAP will require five specific tasks to be assigned to physical buttons rather than have owners navigate them via the infotainment screen. Turn signal indicators, windshield wiper controls, the vehicle's horn, hazard warning lights, and any built-in SOS features should all be removed from the touch screen and earmarked for something tangible.

This may seem like a no-brainer. Yet some automakers like Tesla and Volkswagen have already been chastised by both consumers and industry regulators for ditching physical buttons in the name of a minimalist interior. There's a good reason, too—it's hard to remember where certain controls are if they're buried under menu after menu on a touch screen rather than an easy-to-remember button.

Euro NCAP's director of strategic development, Matthew Avery, explains:

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.

Granted, most automakers aren't out here moving the horn and hazard lights to a menu, but nevertheless, some of the other items that Euro NCAP are calling out (like the turn signal indicators and windshield wiper controls) are something that already have real-world examples in the wild today.

60%: America's Charging Network Would Be Far, Far Worse Without Tesla

Give Tesla credit: it's built what is still the best, most reliable and most extensive charging network there is. That's why every automaker is signing onto Tesla's network and plug system. And Tesla remains the market leader in actual charging growth. 

That says a lot, but this Automotive News headline says even more: "Without Tesla, U.S. is only 3% of the way to DC fast-charger targets." Include the Tesla network and America is 9.1% of the way to its 2030 targets for widely accessible DC fast chargers. 

Basically, all of this charger growth isn't happening fast enough: 

The lab's February report found that the U.S. added 2,696 fast-charging ports in the third quarter of 2023, an 8.3 percent increase. The rate of growth for fast chargers trailed that of both the slower Level 1 and Level 2 chargers.

There "should be a lot more chargers being installed," said Akshay Singh, an automotive partner at PwC Strategy&. The number of fast chargers being installed "is increasing, but also it's not as fast as it should be. It's not enough."

The gradual progress toward charger targets comes as the rate of the EV transition has slowed, leaving inventory on lots and sales lagging even in states like California with enthusiastic adopters. California registered 89,993 electric light passenger vehicles in the fourth quarter, a 10 percent decline from the 101,151 in the third quarter, according to data compiled for the California New Car Dealers Association by Experian Automotive.

Analysts, automakers and drivers acknowledge that range anxiety and a lack of reliable and accessible charging are part of the problem. A J.D. Power study from last month found that public chargers are slowly becoming more reliable, but that they are often dogged by long wait times.

Thank goodness for the Supercharger network. 

90%: Polestar CEO Says EV Doubters Headed for 'Incredible Trap'

The global auto industry has seemingly reached a tipping point in the transition to electrification. With regulators forcing their hand, it's happening whether consumers like it or not in the name of tailpipe emissions reduction—this struggle for consumer demand is something automakers realized will be their biggest hurdle outside of actually forking over the cash to build gobs of battery plants and revamped production lines.

Recently, several automakers have begun cutting back on the output of EVs to rebalance the production capacity between EVs and combustion-powered vehicles to better meet consumer demand. Some have even double-backed on their commitment to electrification by omitting the goal for global markets or stretching their timelines. This, according to Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath, is an elaborate "trap" that they are falling into.

Here's what Ingenlath told The Telegraph:

There’s an incredible threat and danger if you don’t embrace future innovation and believe in that technology – the electric drivetrains, the innovation in battery, the innovation in modern electronics and software. If you don’t participate in that and think you can wait, and customers are ready for it, it’s an incredible trap.

Polestar in particular has had a long-standing stance on electrification: it's happening, and the company is committed to it. Despite recent funding concerns arising from sister-company Volvo, Polestar is still planning to make the switch to brand-wide electrification. Its newest battery-electric vehicle, the Polestar 3, has already begun production in China and will begin its run at Polestar's production facility in South Carolina later this year.

Specifically, the marque sees an "incredible opportunity" in building out premium performance cars, as Ingenlath has identified a large gap in the market where competition is lacking. Could that mean Polestar has some interesting performance offerings up its sleeve?

100%: What's Your Take On Buttons?

I feel like the consumer side of physical buttons is so polarizing. Tesla owners in particular seem very split on this—some feel that physical buttons and stalks do nothing but clutter a car's interior, while others say that it's a necessity (for safety or just ease of use).

Personally, I agree with the latter. There are certain controls in a car that just make sense to be physical buttons, namely anything that gets used frequently and should be made accessible to the driver without taking their hands off the road. Stalks in particular are a big one, especially in roundabouts where pressing a button on the steering wheel and turning it at the same time isn't exactly easy.

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