The following is an opinionated article. This is a written rant. If you agree with me, great, and if you don’t, great because it all reads the same to Google analytics.
The Spread of Screens
There’s a rapidly growing trend in vehicle interior design today. From pickup trucks to sports cars and everything in between, this trend is spreading like germs at a daycare center and enabling our increasing dependence (some call it an addiction) to screens under the disguise of innovation. Of course, I’m talking about digital screen dashboards.
It wasn’t too long ago that giant touchscreens in cars were restricted to the center of the dash. Now, this fingerprint-collecting eye-sore is spreading in a dual-front manifest destiny. Why is this a problem? Am I merely yelling at the clouds like a man three times my vintage? – Probably.
However, there is logic in my madness as I write this rant on a digital screen, trying not to be distracted by a digital screen buzzing in my pocket, so I can go home to stare at a 50-inch entertainment streaming digital screen. Do you see the pattern here?
Cars have always represented freedom, a privileged means to go anywhere at any time. Digital dashboards represent fantastic technological advancements but at the cost of style, imagination, and personal privacy.
All Flash and No Style
Mounting a giant monitor across the length of a dashboard, or behind the steering wheel, as the primary (sometimes only) way to manage systems like the stereo, climate control, glove box, and GPS means interior designers no longer need to worry about organization.
Why worry about a defrost button’s shape, feel, and location when you can just code a graphic on a digital screen? Who cares about placement when you can add another icon to the home screen and let the driver figure it out?
Think about smartphones. Before they took over, cell phones needed style to attract customers. Buyers had a choice of flip phones, compact phones, phones with slidable keyboards, toggle switches, etc.
Now, all smartphones look the same, with giant rectangle screens at the front and an increasing camera lens collection at the back. The same will eventually happen to car interiors as OEM manufacturers adopt this mute design language.
Yet, that is not my biggest problem with digital dashboards. My job as a writer means I spend all day looking at computer monitors getting blue-light tan lines. In addition, when I work on a digital design, I spend hours staring at the screen with the brightness set to high to see color and texture correctly. A lot of people (regardless of age) spend most of their waking time staring at a screen for one reason or another.
This social norm is part of the reason why OEMs felt it was appropriate to add digital screens to another avenue in our lives – the daily commute.
Another speculation is auto makers giving up on trying to prevent us from texting while driving. Legally, OEMs cannot provide a stand or place to mount a phone because it promotes distractive driving. So, they turned the dashboard into a giant smartphone.
Not all, but most digital screens in modern cars interiors resemble desktop monitor screens. An example of this can be seen in the 2024 Ford Mustang or the recently unveiled spy shot of the refreshed 2023 Volkswagen Golf.
Sitting inside a vehicle with a giant infotainment / digital instrument screen makes me feel like I never left the office, which translates into a personal hell. If I wanted to spend my day driving around with a laptop in the car, I would have joined the police force.
Then comes the question of hygiene. We’ve all seen the news stories about how gross our phone screens are because they are constantly in our hands, on tabletops, and around bathrooms (don’t deny it; we all do it). Do you want that problem all over your car’s dashboard? Bad enough we coat the dash every day with our DNA by talking, eating, and coughing while driving. Now we need to worry about fingerprints and sun glare.
It’s Distracting and Complicated
Then there’s the issue of muscle memory. Analog controls are easy to remember, like letters on a keyboard. You get to a point where one doesn’t need to look down to type. But, on a touchscreen, the lack of feeling means it takes longer to remember the precise location of controls and functions.
I’ve owned my current smartphone for nearly two years, and I still have to look down to see which app I’m tapping on because there’s no feeling or texture. Having all your vehicle’s controls on a screen prompts the same problem but while driving through a school zone, highway, or busy intersection.
Drivers will have to look down and navigate pages of icons to find what they need. But what about driver aids? The key word is “aid,” as they are there to help not take over.
The driver is still the ultimate decider on whether a vehicle stays on the road or plows through a storefront window.
If you think explaining how to increase the font size on a smartphone to your parents is annoying, imagine trying to teach them how to do it on their a new car.
Recently, while test-driving a 2023 Kia Sportage, I gave up on finding the volume control for the stereo and just used the analog control on the steering wheel.
When testing a 2022 Land Rover Evoque, it took 10 minutes to find the windscreen defrost because it was a tiny icon in one of the multiple screens hidden by the morning sun glare.
During this, I kept thinking, “How is this better? What does it save? Improve? Is it merely to justify a higher MSRP?” as I counted to ten to settle my rage.
New Tech, Same Wreck
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published its 2021 report in May. Their annual study showed a 10.5% increase in traffic fatalities compared to 2020. Of course, one factor is the 2020 COVID lockdown that grounded many drivers.
Nevertheless, early estimates from the NHTSA already see a 7% increase in traffic fatalities during the first quarter of 2022 compared to 2021. According to the NHTSA, 9,560 people died in traffic accidents in the first quarter of 2022, making it the highest number since 2002.
Nearly 10,000 deaths before the summer on roads where many vehicles came standard with: forward collision warnings, automated braking systems, traction control, stability control, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warnings, and cross-traffic alerts.
What I’m trying to say is that if a car has a steering wheel and pedals, humans will find a way to crash regardless of how advanced safety features get. And, unfortunately, having touchscreen controls does nothing to help nullify the situation. When it comes to cars, touchscreen controls lean more towards gimmick than utility.
Going Against the Algorithm
Digital screens offer a seemingly endless potential to dazzle the eye with retro-themed instrument gauges and graphics that rival most video games. But beautifully designed gauges mean nothing if they are encapsulated in a curved or flat screen.
It doesn’t matter how artistically rendered the graphics are or how well they stimulate our nostalgia cravings for the past. The point is I don’t want to feel like I’m looking at a computer while driving.
I refuse to march forward to a sci-fi predicted, WALL-E, Ready Player One, virtual reality scenario backed by targeted advertising and algorithm sorted marketing agendas. Bad enough I get a monthly email from my email provider / search engine telling me how many miles, which cities, and restaurants, I visited during the month. Enough apps know how to find me. I don’t need my vehicle being a snitch too.
I don’t care if this makes my 30-year-old self sound like I’m saying the music is too loud (which it is, and my generation should be worried about a hum in the drum in our later years).
Whenever I see a giant screen in car interiors, I sympathize with Elvis Presley as I fight the rage-fueled urge to shoot it with a custom Colt .45.
I may be an automotive journalist, but I’m also a consumer and potential car buyer, and I will not sign a lease on a vehicle that makes me feel like I’m sitting at an office desk. Performance and ride quality be dammed. I get tired of being online all the time, and the car, beyond transportation, should be a vessel of escapism, not another device.
End of rant.
Just. Fucking. Awesome. Great article, excellent rant. As an experience designer by trade, the whole point of making things simple and using intelligent design in this situation has been lost. Keep the faith, brother.
Tish Gance Organizer, keeper of the email, sucker for Fiats
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So glad to get validation from an actual designer! Thank you for reading my work. I must visit the Rocky Mountains again soon.