How much dashboard screen is too much in cars?

Byton’s upcoming M-Byte features a dashboard so peculiar that it brings back a question: is ditching physical commands the best way to go?

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The automotive industry is always looking for new stuff to do. Not so much new car models, but new features to use on them: design elements, body styles, structural materials, paint compositions… The intention will always be to make the cars better, whether through attractiveness, safety, fuel efficiency, practicality and reliability. Not to mention to make them stronger competitors in the market. However, we all know what people say about good intentions.

Every change in a car has drawbacks. Electronic injection was more expensive than the carburetor, automatic transmissions take a toll on dynamic behavior, low rooflines affect head room, high ride height reduces the car’s mileage and so on. One of the latest dilemmas to join this group is to apply high-definition screens on the dashboard or receive routine commands through the good, old physical buttons and knobs. By the way, did you already have a take on that?

Give me some context, first

Electronics started to be a part of consumer products in general in the 1980s with the argument of opening a world of improvements: more intuitive user interface, more precise measurements and fewer mechanical parts. When it comes to cars, electronics improved engines by making them more efficient, and dashboards by making them more effective: information would appear as discrete figures, rather than lights that only turned on when things got ugly.

The turn of the decade was marked by the rise of LED screens, whether seven-segment or dot-matrix ones. Since they had low resolution, companies had to use small ones on each part of the dashboard which showed information, such as gauges, climate controls and the stereo — some models would offer a larger one with a menu that included date, time and engine data which drivers don’t need to check all the time in normal conditions. That was only the beginning.

Wow, that brings me back…

Layouts like the Corvette’s, shown above, got a lot of hype for their futuristic look and the resemblance with the interface of videogames, which were also booming then. However, that time also brought the first serious thoughts on whether electronics was truly helping drivers: showing too much information at once, using very similar colors and not caring much about light brightness made those displays difficult to read and, over time, harmful to people’s sight.

Since screens were too popular to abandon, automakers worked on improving them: high-resolution, color models became popular in the 1990s for keeping a lot of information in one place. Their price made them restricted to high-end models at first, but the trend they set reached all market segments in no time: the rest of the dashboard was free to use only physical commands once again. I guess you’ve already figured that’s only another chapter of an ongoing story.

Good touching and bad touching

Having so many buttons and knobs made everyday use difficult once again for forcing drivers to look away from the road to find the correct ones. They could come in special shapes, but that’d make them wildly expensive to produce and to eventually replace and, truth be told, would still not solve the problem: can you see yourself driving and, at the same time, touching the whole dashboard every time you needed to change the current song or the room temperature?

The next milestone here is the development of touchscreens. By rendering the physical commands unnecessary, they can be larger and give a cleaner look to the dashboard. Add high definition and stunning graphics to that and you get the must-have item you see in nowadays. As of 2020, even some low-cost cars concentrate many controls on a touchscreen which is offered as standard item and only gets bigger. Then again, did anyone say this is the perfect solution?

Will this dilemma ever end?

Both extremes are bad. Physical commands clutter the dashboard while giant screens are extremely expensive. Besides, both require too much attention to be operated (let’s keep in mind that the user is driving) and, frankly, neither is really beautiful — did you actually like the Byton’s 48-inch screen shown in the beginning of this article? Because of all that, automakers are slowly agreeing on the fact that the best solution is a compromise between both components.

Functions of frequent use, like A/C, lights and music, shall stay with physical operation. People use them all the time, so they’re easier to use well without looking. All the other functions can be taken to the touchscreen’s structure of menus in order to be easily accessible only when driver and passengers really need them. Feedback from customers has already supported those directions because they finally feel a balance between looks and usability was achieved.

I don’t trust this solution will be permanent…

Yeah, judging by what we’ve just gone through, it most likely won’t, indeed. In the last year, some car models showed extra-large touchscreens as yet another attempt of changing the status quo. Volkswagen has invested in entirely digital gauge clusters for a couple years now and Mercedes-Benz has started to group them with the infotainment central to create a single large screen. And, as you already know, M-Byte is about to mass-produce that obscenely large screen.

While we say we’ve reached a nice solution for the button/screen conundrum, we must also remember what’s often mentioned in this page: people change and so do their needs and wishes. There’s a chance they will want something different in the future, so there will always be automakers trying to anticipate that in order to start selling it before anyone else. If models like the Byton take off, huge screens will be the next trend. Are you ready to have one in your car?

Writer and future engineer striving to work with car design. If you like cars but not the stereotypes that surround them, give my articles a try.