Theme : Dashboards – Introduction

The Editor Dashes Off an Intro

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The first car dashboard to be noted was, probably, the eponymous one used in the Curved Dash Oldsmobile of 1901. However this simply referred to the low barrier at the front of the car that stopped dirt and stones being ‘dashed’ up against the occupants, and which had been inherited entirely from the world of horses and carriages.

As motoring progressed, the position of the dashboard rose literally and it became the natural place to position controls and gauges. Bearing in mind the importance of ensuring safe progress, it might be thought that dashboard design would be pursued with technical rigour, but this has seldom been the case.

Both the term ‘ergonomics’ and its practice seemed unknown to car design until the 1960s, and my first memory of its being used in such a context was for the David Bache designed Rover P6 of 1963. Its implementation in this instance might seem rather rudimentary to today’s eyes but, at the time, it was very impressive compared to the usual random hotch potch layout.

I can’t say that the car world took much interest and, to a degree, has continued to go its merry way to this day with no end of impractical layouts, difficult to identify switches and instruments tucked safely out of the driver’s sight line. Of course much more is known about ergonomics, but this is often negated by stylists who want to impose their lines and marketing folk who insist on squeezing as many functions into the car as possible.

Of course, to an interested driver, part of the lure of an unknown car is getting to know a completely new dashboard geography but there is, perhaps, a case for suggesting that, as the number of functions increase, so does the chance of driver error.

Also there is the fact that, when you purchase a car, the dashboard is the thing you will be looking at most.  This is where you see the results of the many thousands of pounds you have frittered away and, quite often, it is a disappointingly compromised sight.

So this month we give our opinions on The Dashboard. The successes, the classics, the disasters and the plain dull.

7 thoughts on “Theme : Dashboards – Introduction”

  1. Yes, a dashboard should be good to look at but at the end of the day you’re busy doing something very dangerous: piloting a metal cube between other metal cubes and people at speed. So of the utmost importance in my mind is that I can do everything with minimal distraction and preferably doing most all of it without looking away from the road. Is that the way current dashboard design is going? Not really. Look at the horrendous new touch screen based HVAC layouts in some Peugeots and that awful touch-for-everything MacBook in the Tesla. You have to look at the screen and go through touchscreen menus just to change the temperature! No, no, no a thousand times no.

    Ever done the click test at a motorshow? Next time you are there go listen how many cars make a click when you press any button. Then go back to the Audi stand. My previous car was an Audi and I remember getting the monthly magazine and seeing an article in there by some German professor working for Audi on why ALL the buttons in an Audi click. And how from the window button to a radio present button they all have to click in the same way and feel the same way.

    There are also normally lots of hidden protrusions around an Audi’s centre console buttons, that if you look out for them, you will realise they are there so you can feel them blind and then know what is left or right of them. Find the little bump and then hear the audible click when you press the button next to it WITHOUT LOOKING.


    See the little hard protrusions BETWEEN the various buttons.

    That is where car dashboard design should be going – being able to use it (or at least the major functions) without looking. Not towards these horrible touchscreens where you need to look at the dashboard to do anything. What the design itself beyond that is, is secondary in my opinion.

    1. Johann. I totally agree with you that multi-function displays might be fine if you are parked, or have a co-pilot, but for a driver they are a prime distraction. I wonder how many accidents are caused by such fiddling. Insurers compile such statistics but, knowing that if I was the perpetrator of an accident under those circumstances, I’d probably invent a less embarrassing reason, I’d conjecture that a lot more accidents are caused than is realised.

      Since reading your comment I’ve pushed all the switches in my A6. Being old it probably is pre universal click but I at least now realise what the protrusions are for. Now, if I could just get all of the buttons on the climate control; to work all of the time, click or no click!

  2. In my old SAAB’s there are few buttons in the 1st place. Nice large dials for the heater mounted as high up as possible. Radio mounted in the highest position and I try to choose a radio with large buttons and an “analogue” volume control.
    Headlight switch mounted to the right at the top followed by the rear fog light
    Large hazard switch next to the heated rear window and possibly (if optioned) the air con and recirculation switch.
    The window switches are mounted between the driver and passenger – easily felt for by either passenger or driver
    Modern cars have far too many choices. Even the old w124 system with air conditioning was easier than some of the modern equivalents.
    However time must march on from doddery old 50 year olds like me – err last week by the way.

  3. I agree with your point about “analogue” radio volume controls. Twirling a dial for a continuously variable parameter should be a mandatory design. It is baffling that anyone thinks pressing a button 16 times to go from silence to loud enough is acceptable. Recent Renaults I have been in have have had a lot of ergonomic flaws. All of this has been researched to death and yet we still have the unreachable radios, the hidden buttons and anti-intuitive interactions.
    The other angle to this is looks or style. Most of the ergonomic needs do not conflict with the broad sweep of what a stylist might want. Stylists don´t draw button function but might have an opinion about placement. And even then, the ergonomic needs are more than flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of plausible themes.
    Audi are mostly doing a good job on their dashboards I notice but all the cars I have driven recently have been fairly good in terms of the balance of style and function. I didn´t drive today´s Mercedes but was mildly unsettled by the self-indulgent complexity of the C-class I was in. The 2000 Ford Focus seemed to me to hit the sweet spot of quality, function and features. After that Ford and the rest piled on the buttons and Mercedes led the way, it seems.
    Lots to discuss.

  4. Radios are the bane of my life – trying to find one with simple controls is nigh on impossible and has worsened since the introduction of bluetooth etc. I don’t mind bluetooth – good idea – just that it seems to complicate the controls.
    What I need is a radio with a volume control , a button for choice of media eg USB, RADIO, a bass and treble “analogue” knob – everything else should be managed when parked. Perhaps an “answer phone/end call” button

    There’s no reason why climate control interfaces can’t be “analogue dials for vent control, fan speed and temperature. If the middle face vent only offers cool air – you don’t even need to separate the sides of the car. Seems ludicrous to me to be air conditioning 1 side whilst heating the other side.

    Buttons wear out of course causing the car to age faster and buttons (and digital analogue dials) seem to become “sticky” compared to original analogue controls.

    As I said earlier though – time marches on and all the new additional features create the complications.

  5. Very expensive and whilst new – a little too dated for my classic 900. Historically gone for blaupunkt and Grundig but one has exited and the other has lost their way a little with 4 way arrows on one side.

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