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ScreenDrive: Volvo's take on the touchscreen actually makes sense

Intuitive design is safe design

Photography by Vjeran Pavic

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Cars have become expensive rolling gadgets, full of screens, speakers, and sensors — but are they actually good gadgets? In our new series, ScreenDrive, we’ll review cars just like any other device, starting with the basics of what they’re like to use.

If you know anything about Volvo, you know this: it makes safe cars. The company has spent decades working on that goal and making sure you know about it. Volvo invented the three-point seatbelt in 1959 and has led the way in many safety features since. Say what you will about their aesthetics (as somebody of Swedish heritage myself, I like their boxy charm), but you can't really knock a Volvo on safety.

If you know anything about using screens while driving, you know they're distracting and not safe. And yet the very luxurious Volvo V90 Cross Country wagon I drove from Oakland to Palm Springs last month has an interface that's almost 100 percent screen. Where other carmakers augment the screen with various knobs and extra buttons to control the interface, Volvo has recently gone nearly all-in on touch.

A gigantic and potentially distracting touchscreen as the primary interface doesn't seem like it belongs in a car with the primary selling point of protecting the people inside it. Yet, after just a couple hours of familiarizing myself with Volvo's new and much-improved interface for its "Sensus" system, I felt totally safe using it while cruising down the desert freeway at 75 mph.

Displays & Controls

Although Volvo hasn't gone as far as Tesla in pushing nearly everything into the screen, it's gone quite a bit further than most other carmakers. The 9.3-inch portrait screen completely dominates the dashboard, flanked by air vents on the sides, and a pretty simple array of buttons and a volume knob underneath.

Like most dashboard screens, it has a matte finish, which means it won't look as tack-sharp as your iPad, but a glossy screen would be too reflective. It still looks good, though, visible even with 110-degree sunlight streaming through the sunroof.

Most car touchscreens today are also resistive instead of capacitive, like your phone. Resistive screens, which work by detecting simple pressure, are fine enough for poking at icons, but not great for swiping and scrolling. But capacitive screens don’t work with gloves — and this is a car designed in the snowy climes of Sweden, where gloves are pretty much necessary. So yes, the V90 uses a resistive touchscreen. Luckily, Volvo added touch-sensitive technology to help mitigate the problems of resistive touchscreens: infrared sensors.

The two kinds of sensors work in tandem with the resistive screen to detect what your finger is doing and translate it into commands. Trying to maintain pressure when making a broad swiping gesture on a resistive screen sucks, so the infrared portion can detect that you're swiping. Infrared isn't the best at detecting taps, but resistive works just fine for that. It doesn't feel quite as responsive as a capacitive screen, but it's still pretty good. And it works fine with gloves.

Navigating the interface

A big screen is nice, but we've seen enough big screens in cars to know that most of them will take every opportunity to screw up the interface. A bigger screen is a bigger opportunity to make bad choices.

Thankfully, Volvo made mostly good choices in this version of Sensus. (In earlier model years, Volvo made mostly bad choices.) The best choice that Volvo made was putting a big, obvious "home" button at the bottom of the screen. Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, you can press that home button and get back to the main center screen. It's a giant escape key, a "what is happening, I don't know" button. It's just like the iPad, in that regard. It's not only useful, it's intuitive: everybody knows what a home button does.

The core of Volvo's interface involves three, distinct zones on the big, main screen. That sounds complicated, but it only takes a couple minutes to acclimate yourself to it. You can swipe left or right to switch between them (or, of course, hit that fail-safe home button to go back to the middle).

There is a permanent zone at the bottom for climate controls, which persists no matter what else you're doing on the screen. Except for the specific buttons for defrosters, everything is controlled by touchscreen. This sounds annoying, but the HVAC system is good enough that you can usually just set your temperature and forget it. Even in the 120-plus degree heat of the California desert, I didn't have to fiddle with specific fan settings to feel comfortable.

The main home screen is the place where you'll spend all of your time, at least when you're actively driving. It has four bars stacked vertically: the top is Navigation, Media, Phone, and finally an active app, which can change depending on your activity. Each section accordions out to show more details. This means that you nearly always have one-touch access to switch functions. If you're looking at a map and want to change the music, you just tap the music panel, which is defaulted to display whatever you're currently playing. It expands in place and moves the other panels up or down.

Some apps can go full screen, like the backup camera. You can have it set as a traditional backup camera, or have it give you a 360-degree view around the car, which is trippy but convenient. Volvo's own navigation app also offers a full-screen option. Going full screen hides that stacked, four-button interface. I'd say it's confusing, but again, you can always just jump out of whatever view you're stuck on by hitting that home button.

Sensus comes with a pretty healthy set of apps with interfaces that range from acceptable to distressing. The core navigation app — based on Here Maps data — never got me lost and managed to find most of the waypoints I plugged into it, but the interface is not nearly as good as Google Maps. XM radio works well, so long as you take a few minutes to program in your favorite stations. If you don't, you will spend a bit too long scrolling through the options.

There's a built-in Spotify app that I found to be pretty awful compared to other interfaces, but it works if you have data for the built-in LTE connection. (You can also tether the car to your phone, if you enjoy doing that sort of thing every time you get in the car.) A smattering of other apps are fine, but forgettable.

CarPlay and Android Auto

If you are the sort of person who can spend over $60,000 on a car (as tested, my model has an MSRP of $64,640), you're almost surely the sort of person who has an iPhone or Android phone. So, you can ignore most of Sensus' built-in apps, and just use CarPlay or Android Auto.

When you use one of those two systems (Volvo supports both), you're in for a small treat. Because the V90 has such a massive touchscreen, both CarPlay and Android Auto display their landscape interfaces at the bottom of the screen, while the buttons for Navigation, Media, and Phone are still visible (and usable) above them.

That means that if you are using CarPlay for navigation, you’re still only one button press away from the interface for XM or FM radio. It's much easier and less jarring to have everything on a single screen than what you usually have to do on CarPlay and Android Auto systems: figure out how to jump back to your car's interface, hunt for what you need, then hunt again to go back to your smartphone interface.

Customizing the Controls

From the home screen, you can swipe over to a left-hand screen, which has a bunch of random vehicle functions. Here, you'll find a big array of toggle buttons, most of which you won't bother accessing while on the move; these are settings and functions for stuff like Parking Assist and adjusting the heads-up display. You should mostly futz with these when you're parked, not when you're on the move.

You'll probably need to access these pretty rarely, but the button that makes the back seat headrests flop down automatically is a neat party trick to impress your passengers (as long as none of them are, well, in the back seat).

If you're not using CarPlay or Android Auto, you will be swiping to the right of the home screen to get to Sensus' list of apps. You can drag and drop to rearrange them, ensuring the stuff you actually use is at the top. That home button might suggest an iPad, but don’t expect to get anything close to the responsiveness you expect from the iPad home screen.

There's an LTE connection for downloading new apps, app updates, and maps. You can also set it up as a hot spot for your phone, but in general I found its AT&T connection to be a little less reliable than just using my phone directly. Be aware that the first time you use it in a new geographic region, there's a hefty maps download than can take quite some time to complete.

Last (and least), there is a whole Settings area you get to by swiping down from the top of the screen. This is definitely an area you'll visit once or twice while parked and then (hopefully) never again. You can customize an overwhelming array of stuff in Sensus: choosing keyboard layouts, setting up custom profiles for different drivers, tweaking climate controls, and much more.

Other screens and buttons

The V90 Cross Country has a couple other screens: there's a heads-up display that shows your speed and the current status of the assisted cruise control. I'm not a big fan of HUDs, but it works as you'd expect so long as you're not using polarized sunglasses.

The other, more important display is the one behind the steering wheel. It's big and customizable, showing a mini map or the song that’s playing. Navigating it is a bit of a hassle: you have to use the D-pad on the left side of the steering wheel that only controls it when you've hit a toggle switch next to it. Otherwise it handles standard music controls for volume and skipping tracks.

The left side of the steering wheel has all the controls for the assisted cruise control. It's excellent, by the way, subtly steering you in the lane on the freeway as long as you have your hands resting on the wheel. It's also better in stop-and-go traffic than other systems I've tried. There are custom buttons for adjusting how many car lengths to leave ahead of you, too.

This is a car, though, and cars inevitably have at least one dopey physical control. On the V90, it's a silly little chrome roller that you can move forward and back to adjust the driving mode — but it's just a control to a software screen, not a direct switch like your gear shifter. It sits just under the ignition switch, a little knob you turn left and right to turn the car on and off. The key, naturally, is a wireless thing you keep in your pocket or purse. I wish it was smaller.

Familiar is safe

All of this interface isn't nearly as complicated as it sounds, written out. Fundamentally, you futz with the settings on those ancillary screens a couple times when parked and then rarely look at them again (and never while moving). Instead, you spend all your time on that main screen, and the main screen doesn't do what other screens do: it doesn't distract you.

It doesn't distract you because it works almost exactly like your phone does. You tap, you swipe, you hit the home button to reset. Using any interface requires a subtle cognitive load, part of your brain thinking "how do I do this thing I want to do?" instead of just doing it. It can take a long time for those actions to become automatic.

On the Sensus system, though, you basically get a head start on that learning, because what you know from your phone already applies here. It's the equivalent of getting rid of a mouse or a stylus on a gadget — you just touch the screen.

Sometimes, yes, that means you're looking down from the road a little more often (or a little longer) than you might if you had some kind of knob- or button-based system. But the home screen setup actively tries to minimize the need to do that with big buttons and fewer options than your phone. It's fast enough to keep those looks to a minimum. And, frankly, Volvo's semi-autonomous safety systems seem good enough that a slightly extended glance at a screen feels a little less hazardous than it used to be.

The luxury in the V90 Cross Country comes from the heated, stitched leather seats and other well-appointed trim. All those amenities made my many hours of driving not just bearable, but enjoyable. A road trip in first class is nicer than one in coach. But there's also a simpler luxury: not having to learn yet another computer interface when you get behind the wheel.


Much of the tech is standard in the $55,300 model I drove including the 9-inch touchscreen, the Sensus system, wifi, and the 12.3-inch display. For an additional $3,200 you can tack on the convenience package that includes the 360-degree camera and park assist features. It’s a pricy upgrade, but you’re already spending a ton, and these systems are great.