Byton had an unveiling at CES this year that went over, among other things, the partnered content it is going to shove into its massive 48-inch screen, and I couldn’t help but think that this is a step in the wrong direction.
There was a time not so long ago when replacing the gauges in a car with a digital screen was the upscale thing to do. Cheap cars had gauges. Expensive cars had screens. What happens in a few years when all the inexpensive cars have screens?
Thanks to economies of scale, screens are cheap. Super cheap; buy anything electronic on Amazon for more than eight dollars and it comes with a 7” screen. Screens are also less likely to break than mechanically moving gauges, and, of course, they can display any information. It’s only a matter of time before all the less expensive cars are using screens instead of gauges, not because it’s better, but because it’s cheaper.
If the next Nissan Versa has screens instead of buttons and gauges, how will Mercedes differentiate their driver interface? I hope it will be with something more interesting than just more screens. Maybe even physical gauges. There are so many beautiful gauges in the history of cars; gauges that look like mechanical jewellery, like an expensive watch telling you what your coolant temperature is.
This year’s CES presenters were promising holographic displays and touchscreens that change their surface textures. It sounds cool, but it also sounds gimmicky, distracting, and unnecessarily complex.
There is an argument to be made that we don’t even need gauges in modern cars. If the temperature of your EV gets out of range, you’re not going to fix it on the side of the road with a screwdriver. It’s just going to throw up a warning and tell you to get a tow because something is very wrong. A lot of useful information in modern cars doesn’t even lend itself to being displayed with a moving needle.
Still, I’m ready for this trend to make a U-turn away from flat boring screens and back to sweeping needles and shiny embossed numbers. Although honestly it probably won’t happen.
Future automobiles will have screens, though integrated differently. They will be a seamless part of the car instead of a discreet rectangle with info on it. The Porsche Taycan does screen integration and design pretty well. It just feels like Maslow’s hammer when it replaces all the gauges and all the controls. It’s like the new plastic. Yeah, it’s great, but does it need to be the solution for everything?