The world of Cyberpunk 2077 is one where technological innovation has run wild. Its citizens are full of robot parts, can send data with their minds and can literally see other people’s dreams and memories. Yet despite all this, one aspect of everyone’s daily lives is still incredibly quaint (at least by those standards): its cars are full of buttons.
There’s a big trend in automotive design these days, spurred on by Tesla’s reliance on enormous touchscreens, that cars don’t need buttons. That everything you need to do as a driver (or front-seat passenger), from checking a map to controlling the air conditioning to changing the song on the radio, can and should be performed by tapping through the menus of a big computer screen (or using your voice, though this is usually only helpful for a select few features, depending on the car).
There’s absolutely not good reason for it. It’s slower, it’s harder and most importantly it’s more dangerous to use a screen while driving than using traditional buttons. Tapping on an ipad is fine when we’re at work or on the couch because that’s what we’re doing. It’s the only thing we’re focused on. Asking us to do that while driving a two-tonne motor vehicle, taking our eyes off the road while hurtling down it at 70 miles an hour, is borderline suicidal. Especially if you keep fucking things up because you’re trying to watch the road and tap on the screen and so keep missing the buttons and moving your seat when you meant to be swapping albums on Spotify.
(I’ll note here that I’m talking about cars, especially contemporary and upcoming electric vehicles, that put these huge screens front and centre. My 2018 Kia Sorento has a little touchscreen that I just use for Android Auto, with everything else still buttons, and I think that’s fine and a nice balance!)
You know where a button is in a car. More importantly, you can feel it while driving, meaning you don’t have to take your eyes off the road to use them. Want to turn up the AC? There’s a big round dial for that. Same for the volume. These have their own dedicated space inside the car—they’re not buried inside a menu—and with their own distinct shapes and tactile feel can be found and used instantly.
This isn’t an “old man yells at cloud” take. It’s an “I’m sick of Silicon Valley influencing people to change things for the sake of them instead of changing things because they’re actually better” take. And I’m of course far from alone here; watch any car review on YouTube and you’ll often see the same complaints, that too many functions, from VW’s awful climate “sliders” to Tesla’s murderous insistence on having your speed only visible in the central screen in some of its cars, are a pointless obstacle to safe and comfortable driving.
Something (kinda) proven in a Swedish study in 2022, which tested 11 cars of varying age—from a Tesla Model 3 to an ancient Volvo V70—to see which ones had the best “usability”.
During the tests, drivers were given varying tasks to perform, such as changing radio stations or altering the climate controls. In each instance, the car was driven at 68 mph, and researchers measured the time and distance covered by each car while the tasks were being performed.
The results? The 2005 Volvo V70 won handily, while the worst-performing vehicle was the MG Marvel R, a modern car which has some buttons on its steering wheel but relegates many other commands to its large central touchscreen. As for the Tesla Model 3, it took over twice as long to perform the same four tasks as the 18-year-old V70.
Which is my very long-winded way of getting around to saying that, having just spent a lot of time playing Cyberpunk 2077 (more on that in the weeks to come), I really appreciate the fact its cars are full of buttons! Every car you get into, there’s buttons all over the place. In front of you, next to you, all over the dash, all over the centre console. And it looks amazing. There’s an aesthetic reason for that, of course, as lead vehicle artist on the game Jakub Przybolewski explains:
We looked at car designs from the 1980s and 1990s, as cars manufactured during that time had a very minimalist look – doing so much without overdoing anything. They’re simple, easy to recognise, and carry a timeless look. For the world of 2077, this was a perfect place to start.
So the fact 2077’s cars are full of buttons is partly down to the fact that, like so much other stuff in the game’s world, they’re extrapolations of classic sci-fi art, drawn in the decades before today’s touchscreens had been invented.
But then, plenty of other stuff in the game has been made ultra-futuristic. Many of 2077’s data transfers are done digitally via people’s brains, and nearly every computer you interact with has a big clean touchscreen, not a clunky old 80s monitor.
Given that, I like to think the buttons all over the interiors of the game’s cars aren’t just there as a visual throwback (and a very good-looking one at that), but as a future realisation that, shit, as technologically depraved as 2077’s world has become, even they know a dumb idea when they see one, and they’ve reverted to the fact cars are much cooler—and easier to use—if they’re full of buttons.