The familiar lever-operated handbrake has been replaced by an electronic version in many cars and the same thing is happening to a host of cockpit controls which have been around for almost as long as the automobile itself.
Touchscreens are common in everyday cars and the swathes of switches and buttons that once crowded the dashboard are giving way to electronic interfaces.
Consumers demand these gadgets, but road safety experts have their misgivings.
They argue that touchscreens can distract the driver from concentrating on the road. And what about computer bugs and viruses? Could these paralyse cars or even cause accidents? The long-term reliability of smart control systems is another grey area which needs to be examined.
The electric parking brake is a classic example of how electronic devices are relieving drivers of driving chores.
"On many new cars the handbrake is operated by so-called actuators," says Heiklo Wolframm from Germany's high-profile car club, the ADAC.
"A mere flick of a lightweight switch lever is all that is needed to apply maximum brake power at all four wheels and make the car immovable on steep slopes," says the ADAC man.
The electronic park brake (EPB) is reliable and it does away with the need to yank up a lever and push a button to retain it. It uses electronic modules rather than an old-fashioned steel cable to press the press calipers onto the brake discs and lock the brakes.
There was nothing wrong with the old system, which goes back to the early days of driving, yet manufacturers are always looking for innovations which declutter the cabin and save weight at the same time.
Digital displays have ousted analogue instruments like the analogue speedometer while air-conditioning can be operated via the car's entertainment system, making the rotating plastic switches or levers redundant. The ignition key is also on the way out. In an increasing number of cars a button starts the engine.
"Generally speaking the electronic elements in a car cockpit enhance driver comfort and safety," says Alexander Klotz of German automotive component and systems maker Continental.
Electronic aids and the possibilities they offer help to create a logical structure for the driver who can often let apps handle all the entertaining, navigation and climate control duties.
"If you wanted switches and knobs for all these functions you would need hundreds of them," says the expert. That is why modern cars often have a central touchscreen which combines and carries out all the necessary functions.
This is where potential risks come in: "Operating these displays can cause the driver to take his or her eyes off the road for too long," says the ADAC's Nina Wahn.
"Drivers process around 90% of road traffic information visually and it is very important that the displays are in what is called our peripheral field of vision," says Wahn.
Peripheral vision is the part of seeing that is beyond the centre of our gaze, and is the largest portion of the human visual field.
The revolution in car controls has been fuelled by the smartphone boom of recent years. "Of course carmakers want to get the kind of controls into cars which customers already know from their mobile devices," says Markus Schaffrin of the eco Association of the eco Internet Industry.
This can also pose risks: "As long as the technical standards for these devices used in cars continue to converge and wireless connections are not secure it is only a question of time before cars are subject to the first hacking attacks," says Schaffrin.
These cyber assaults can immobilise a car completely. The expert meanwhile warns against mobile key applications using Google's Android software. Android is plagued by bugs, says the IT man. "On average a new one crops up every nine seconds."
Eckehart Rotter of Germany's powerful VDA carmakers federation has been lobbying for the industry to adopt a modular approach to car electronics which would separate entertainment from security functions.
At the same time, Rotter lauds the safety and comfort of navigation systems compared to drivers who were used to getting around by peering at an atlas perched on their knees. "Using a navigator is a lot less distracting than that," he says.
Meanwhile research is being carried out into the reliability of automotive electronic systems by scientists like Roland Jancke of the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits.
"Many electronic elements were originally developed for domestic use and for smartphones," says Jancke. "The automotive context is completely different. The components have to last 20 years and are subject to strong temperature variations." — dpa
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