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Look but don't touch: displays defy distraction at New York Auto Show

Car tech keeps coming, but the displays popping up on everyone's dashboards aren't as touchy-feely as you might expect.

Step into one of the glitzy cars at the 2013 New York International Auto Show, and you may be tempted to reach out and poke at the dashboard touchscreen to see what it can do. The answer, in many cases, may come as a surprise: absolutely nothing.

That's because many of the touchscreens that became popular in recent vehicle model years have been unceremoniously jettisoned in favor of bigger, non-touch screens controlled by what amounts to stationary computer mice.

Many automakers now view touchscreens as too distracting since they require drivers to take their eyes off the road too long to reach and poke at screens. Instead, many 2014 cars come with small Driver Information System (DIS) controls or knobs that work like computer mice.

Lexus shows 12.4-inch display with DIS control

Lexus showed off how a DIS control next to the car's stick shift managed the Lexus Enform entertainment and navigation system without the stretching needed to reach a touchscreen.

Lexus Enform includes access to popular apps like Facebook, Yelp, Pandora and Bing, but only to a limited extent, said another Lexus rep. She noted that the Facebook app was basically just for "checking in" to locations and said the Yelp app lets you drill down only three menus deep, thus limiting how much attention you pay to detailed content.

Another Lexus representative noted that while previous models of the IS series of sedans offered touchscreens, the 2014 IS 250 F Sport sedan displayed at the show comes with lots of driver-side technology, but no touchscreen.

BMW concept has touchscreens only for rear cabin

At BMW, where analog instrument clusters are part of the classic BMW look, many of the high-tech electronic displays in 2014 models mimic analog dials. Even the BMW Concept Active Tourer premium compact car displayed at the show has a rounded albeit digital electronic instrument cluster. Here again the large display in the futuristic infotainment console isn't a touchscreen. The only touchscreens are the two removable iPad-like displays facing the rear passenger seats, which also have access to handy fold-down trays.

A BMW spokesman said the company had absorbed harsh criticism for avoiding touchscreens in recent model years, but said BMW is now considered a pioneer in minimizing driver distractions.

Hyundai Equus has multiple, non-touch displays

The 2014 Hyundai Equus can be ordered with a 12.3-inch TFT LCD instrument cluster, a 9.2-inch color LCD media center console display and twin 9.2-inch rear seat monitors. In this car no one pokes at a screen: Even the rear-seat passengers manage their monitors with controllers on a console between the seats.

2014 Jeep Cherokee offers configurable instrument-cluster display

Touchscreens are by no means dead, however. The 2014 version of the historically boxy Jeep Cherokee arrived at the auto show as a sleek mid-size SUV with smooth curves, bright colors and nifty technology. The Cherokee can be ordered with a 7-inch color LCD instrument cluster with a twist: It can be configured by the user. It also uses an 8.4-inch touchscreen to manage its audio and navigation system.

"Nothing has been left out in the engineering and design of this vehicle," said Mike Manley, president and CEO of the Jeep division of Chrysler during a press conference.

Like many new vehicles, the 2014 Jeep Cherokee has automated features that leave less for drivers to do. An Active Drive I setting available in the Sport, Latitude and Limited models allows it to shift into and out of four-wheel drive mode at any speed without any input from the driver. Other drive settings provide for more control and climbing power. A Parksense Active Park Assist System automates the task of parking for those who aren't sure of their skills are parallel parking.

Touch becomes option rather than trend

Are the days of touchscreens for drivers coming to an end? Not really--especially in smaller cars, where the reach for the screen is shorter. However, many touchscreen interfaces, like the ones used in Ford Sync, have been simplified with larger buttons and fewer choices. Automakers might be figuring out that there's a limit to how much technology can be thrown at drivers at once.


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