Without a doubt, the worst automotive invention of the last twenty years is the steering wheel-mounted button. Tragically, it’s also the most abused.
I suppose mounting buttons on the steering wheel is akin to communism – seems great in theory, but in practice is a complete disaster due to the shortcomings of those in the decision-making process. As we’ve witnessed recently, evidently certain automotive manufacturers employ more with shortcomings than others.
The whole concept of steering wheel buttons is very noble: keep the driver’s hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. By having a button for setting the cruise control and another for changing speed, it was better than a button on the dash somewhere. I’m not certain who was the initial offender, (my gut says BMW,) but seemingly overnight, steering wheels started receiving buttons to control the stereo. That simply opened the flood gates. Now it is not uncommon to find stereo/DVD, HVAC, nav system, cruise control and phone controls splattered all over the wheel.
My wife’s 1998 Oldsmobile Intrigue has controls for cruise and stereo mounted in small pods recessed from the main steering wheel. They are easy to use, and impossible to hit accidentally. For exhibit B, however, we have the 2006 Toyota Avalon Limited I purchased last year. Twelve buttons are littered around the wheel hub, but only the distance control for the laser-guided cruise is recessed. At least once a day I find myself inadvertently changing the radio station or shutting off the A/C. Why on God’s green Earth does anyone require Temp +/-, Auto and HVAC Off controls on a steering wheel, when the same buttons are six inches away on the dash? The bottom line is that if auto manufacturers actually designed their interiors well, all major controls would already fall naturally to the hand without looking. Instead, they skimp on ergonomics and use steering wheel buttons as a crutch. Now, consumers expect the crutch. There isn’t a single control in the Avalon I can’t find with simple muscle memory, so the steering wheel controls are more of a distraction than a benefit… but the horrible buttons were added only because Hondas, Caddies, Nissans and Buicks offer them too.
The end result is that the buttons on the wheel require that I take my eyes off the road, but the systems they control can be accessed with ease. Plus, I can’t afford to focus my eyes on the steering wheel, because they’re too busy scanning for other motorists paying more attention to their I-Drive-esque gadgets instead of driving.