Screens have taken over your life and now they’ve taken over your car.
The takeover was swift, sneaky and relatively painless. Gigantic in-car screens are only becoming larger, taking up more and more dashboard real estate. The trend seems unstoppable at the moment, but a turning point may be in sight.
First, how did this takeover happen?
A few auto makers dabbled in cathode-ray-tube screens and even digital LED displays in the 1970s and 80s.
The 1979 Aston Martin Lagonda – an overambitious, wedge-shaped sedan, which, adjusted for inflation, cost the equivalent of $350,000 Canadian – had an elaborate array of LED screens to display dashboard information. The screens were so expensive to make, Aston replaced them in 1984 with a trio of small TV-style cathode-ray displays, which, according to Hemmings magazine, were originally developed for the F-15 Eagle fighter jet.
Luc Donckerwolke, who began his career as a car designer in 1990, said digital displays for the radio and car-stereo equalizers became common in the eighties.
“The first [screens] were for radio frequency,” said Donckerwolke, who took the top design job at Genesis after leaving Bentley. “You went from a frequency on an analog bar to a frequency on a digital screen.” These screens were tiny, only an inch or two wide. By the mid-eighties, they were displaying additional information such as fuel consumption and temperature.
Digital displays for the radio and car-stereo equalizers became common in the eighties, he said.
“Screens became bigger and bigger, and then suddenly somebody put navigation information on it. And then from this [navigation] unit, screens suddenly exploded onto the whole architecture of the car’s interior.”
The 1987 Toyota Royal Crown, a big luxury sedan produced for the Japanese market, had a colour display for a CD-based navigation system that relied on dead reckoning. The 1990 Mazda Eunos Cosmo took a big step forward, using a GPS-based navigation system with in-dash colour display.
In 1986, the Buick Riviera was likely the first production car to have a touch screen. It used a green-and-black cathode-ray-tube display, but Buick discontinued it in 1990. At the time, Popular Mechanics wrote that the touch screen, “violates the First Commandment of ergonomics – you must take your eyes off the road to make any adjustments.”
With the 2001 7 Series, BMW introduced its iDrive system, which featured a central (non-touch) screen mounted high, next to the instrument cluster. The screen became a hub of vehicle interaction.
“We had a pretty rudimentary navigation before that, but with [iDrive] it really became more of a modern approach, with a larger screen and a new interface,” said Don Smith, technology product manager for BMW North America.
The original idea was to simplify and streamline control for a growing number of features.
“We recognized that more technology was coming into the vehicle, so to add more and more buttons is more of a distraction,” Smith said. “IDrive created an interface that allowed us to add more features into the vehicle with less distraction. There were both positive and negative reactions, but it was a leap … and you’ve seen a lot of auto makers follow.”
Since then, in-car displays have only grown larger while touch screens have become available on cars at all price points.
Tesla’s Model S was a big-screen pioneer. The vertically oriented, 17-inch touch screen controls nearly every function of the vehicle, including the sunroof and “Ludicrous” speed mode.
The coming Mercedes A-Class, a subcompact car, has two 10.5-inch screens side by side, which stretch more than halfway across the cabin.
Audi’s mid-size A6 sedan features three screens: a 10.1-inch upper display, 8.6-inch lower display and a 12.3-inch instrument cluster display. There are four screens, if you count the head-up display.
For reference, Apple’s iPad screens range from 7.9 inches to 12.9 inches.
The biggest screens are still reserved for high-end cars, but that’s changing fast. The all-new 2019 Ram pickup truck has a 12-inch central touch screen that dominates the dashboard.
It doesn’t seem as through we’ve hit peak screen yet either.
At Milan Design Week, Chinese startup Byton showed a near-production-ready SUV concept that has a 49-inch-wide screen running the entire width of the dashboard, plus another 10-inch screen on the steering wheel.
With bigger screens comes the potential for bigger distraction.
If it’s illegal to drive while holding an iPad because it’s too distracting, how is it safe to use an iPad-sized screen mounted on the dashboard?
Every auto maker will tell you they go to great lengths to ensure these big screens are safe and not distracting to the driver. However, there’s no universal safety standard and there’s no question these screens are more distracting than the old standard: an AM/FM radio.
A 2017 study by the University of Utah for the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that “In-Vehicle Information Systems take drivers’ attention off the road for too long to be safe.”
“Certainly, you have this competition between the real world behind the windscreen and the virtual world inside of screen,” Donckerwolke said. “And this is exactly the problem: the distraction is getting big.”
“If you’re talking about autonomous, great, but do you really want to be in an IMAX box? You’re going to be radiated with all those images. … It’s going against, for me, tranquility,” he said.
The turning point, a move away from huge in-car screens, may in fact already be under way. Many of the technologies that could replace screens are still relatively young.
SangYup Lee, who works alongside Donckerwolke in the Genesis design department, said touch screens are a middle step on the way to a better user-experience design.
Holographic displays or smart buttons that only appear when you need them are two possible solutions, Lee suggested. Augmented-reality technology, such as Microsoft HoloLens, could alert drivers to potential hazards ahead by highlighting them in real time. Audi and Cadillac already have touch screens with rudimentary haptic feedback. BMW is working on better gesture control; just wave your hand in the air to scroll through menus and selection options.
Several auto makers are also adopting cloud-based voice-recognition systems that use machine learning to better understand natural language and carry out complex instructions.
“When the iPhone came along,” Donckerwolke said, “I had a discussion with people saying, ‘Nobody wants a touch screen in the car, nobody wants fingerprints all over the car.’ Now, you have Echo, Alexa, Siri – and the younger generation, they don’t type any more, they talk.”
In future, we may be looking back wondering how voice control and in-car AI replaced all those big screens.