Dash forwards: the evolution of car controls
Car styling isn't evolving all that fast these days. You often need to be a bit of a spotter to distinguish a new generation of car from its predecessor. Until you sit inside. The rapid evolution of dashboards is one of the most exciting and visible areas of progress in car technology.
That's not only because of the mushrooming breadth and complexity of information available to drivers. It's also because new technologies are altering the way all this info is imparted. And driving is ever more a two-way exchange of data: the car tells us stuff of course, but we need to tell it where to go, who to call, what to look up. Finally there's branding: the visual and tactile design of all this is a vital differentiator between car brands.
This is a serious business, and ergonomic science is trying, often struggling, to find ways of doing it without perilous distraction. When things were simpler and more innocent, there was space for a bit of fun. Especially in the US.
Try this, from a Chrysler 300F, the pinnacle of the range in 1960. Dripping with chrome, it included push-button selection of the automatic transmission instead of the usual lever, and a push-button radio too. In the dark the labels glowed with electroluminescence. All these were years ahead of their time. The main dial cluster was known, fabulously, as the Astrodome, a perspex quarter-ball with a speedo around its periphery and a series of smaller dials in segments closer to the steering wheel's boss.
It actually took a long while after the invention of the car for much of a consensus to emerge about where to put the controls. What's credited as the first mass-made car, the 'curved-dash' Oldsmobile, was even named after the dash, but it was just a protective footboard that didn't have much in the way of instruments. In early cars, your speed was so low you didn't need recording and you dipped the fuel tank with a stick.
On the blower
I can still feel the tension from the day I drove Bentley's supercharged 'Blower' from 1930 (above). The brake pedal is on the right and the accelerator in the middle, concentrating the mind, given the car is worth many millions sterling. The gear lever is on the edge, not the middle of the cockpit, and the handbrake is entirely outside the body. And the dash, well it's haphazardly stuffed with gauges, switches and levers. There's just so much for the driver to do, simply to keep this giant moving forward: you need to alter the ignition timing, keep an eye on fuel pressure, all sorts of arcana long forgotten.
Keeping abreast of the engine is why in the 1960s European performance cars mostly had some variation of the layout used by the E-Type Jaguar above. A big speedo and rev-counter either side of the steering wheel, then a row of smaller dials across the centre of the car so so the driver could monitor the mechanical health.
But the saloon market still went for style. Citroen's CX (above) memorably used rotating-drum analogue-‘digital' gauges and an array of fingertip switches that took a while to learn but then worked wonderfully. The fact they demanded familiarity was likely why they didn't catch on.
On the clock
Real digital clocks had been around since Aston Martin announced the wedgey Lagonda limousine in 1976 (below). In the US GM used them in the 1980s – even with a touch-screen – and they appeared on the first Audi Quattro. But these crude early displays were universally pretty ugly and near-invisible in bright light. The idea got parked for a couple of decades.
Meanwhile in Germany in the 1980s, Mercedes, BMW, and Audi perfected a simple, eminently legible style of binnacle that gradually became a default style across the world. Below is a BMW 3-series from the late 1980s.
But already you can see a problem beginning to emerge. There are so many buttons on the trip computer and stereo that they've become tiny and hard to locate. As other electronic systems were added, the problem multiplied. You practically needed an electron microscope to read the switch labels.
And so BMW tackled the problem in dramatic fashion with its iDrive in the 7-series of 2001. Almost all the controls for secondary systems – stereo, phone, navigation, vehicle settings – were moved to a central screen for menus as displays, controlled by a large knob by the armrest, an example is below. The knob could be turned, nudged in eight horizontal directions, or pushed. Initially it was a huge jolt for people to get used to.
It had programming faults too: it demanded about five menu steps to change radio station. Plus its software had such latency that it needed real concentration to use. All of which caused wide derision of the whole system. But as it speeded up, and as BMW relented and added a few more hard buttons, it became hugely influential to Audi, Mercedes, Lexus, and other luxury makers.
Still more car makers began to do a similar thing with touch-screens for navigation and entertainment. They're usually augmented by buttons on the steering wheel, and voice recognition.
Recently, digitised primary instruments, the main displays behind the steering wheel, have come back into vogue. In 2009 Range Rover and Jaguar replaced all the dials with a 'virtual cluster' of lifelike dials on a TFT screen. Why use fancy tech to impersonate time-proven analogue? Because this meant the driver could choose the layout of the dials… they'd change size to accommodate extra readouts, for instance. Mercedes launched an S-class where the virtual dials moved aside to make room for the picture from a night-vision camera. The Lexus LF-A supercar's display could be switched through several formats to record the goings-on with its manic V10 engine. The idea is about to go mass-market with the new VW Passat.
Mostly though, the extra capacity of graphic displays isn't used for mechanical readouts. Unlike in the 1960s, drivers don't need to keep watching water temperature or oil pressure for signs of incipient breakdown. Instead we want to be able to see maps and directions, scroll through phone numbers and music tracks, and receive and post to social feeds. We want weather in our cars and apps and downloads.
To do all this, there's inevitably a squeeze on screen real estate. Tesla solves it by providing a gigantic multi-purpose 17-inch touch-screen on its model S. It's far more responsive than most rival devices in cars, too.
Heads up at play
But for critical driver info, head-up displays (HUDs) are getting more common. Most project images onto a reflective area of the windscreen, but a new cheaper system, used first by Peugeot and then Mini, uses a small transparent flap that pops up from the dashboard. They typically permanently show your speed. They'll also show the entertainment track, but that gets replaced by a navigation arrow approaching a junction or other warnings as they become urgent, and also show status of driver assistance systems such as lane-keeping, speed limit recognition and distance to the car in front.
HERE, too, is studying HUD systems to understand how they can be used in conjunction with the rest of the dashboard for the best user experience. HUDs are particularly relevant to letting the driver know where to turn, because they gives the driver the info without them needing to drop their eyes from the road.
After all, at a junction, the first, last, and only place you should be looking is through the windscreen.
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