After almost five decades of sporadic appearances and false dawns, is the digital dashboard finally in inexorable ascendency?
I have been meaning to write something on this subject for some time now. Unfortunately, the nasty virus has meant that my working life has gone into overload as I have responsibility for keeping a small UK bank operating with it’s entire staff working out of bedrooms, kitchens, dining rooms and even landings, and so time and energy has been in short supply.
I had also been pondering a suitable title, and then a sad recent event made this an obvious if slightly misleading choice. As a mid-teen, I got into ‘electronic’ music, and my young world tilted when my sister bought a rather obscure album, by a band I had never heard of, for my 14th birthday.
Computer World (or Computerwelt) by Kraftwerk was like nothing I’d ever heard before. It was odd and slightly disturbing and took a little persistence, but then it got under my skin and I was hooked. Pocket Calculator remains high up on my playlist, and I still find myself muttering ‘Numbers’ to myself whilst doing menial tasks like washing up.
So, this is for Florian Schneider.
It’s relevant because, as with many people at the time, I was fascinated by the rise of ‘electronic’ – games, watches, calculators, music, you name it. So, when BL launched the Maestro in March 1983 with a ‘digital dashboard’ and voice synthesiser, I was young and naïve enough to be entranced. I think I have written before that the launch of the Maestro, believe it or not, was something of an accelerator for my interest in cars. I bought my first edition of Car back then because it featured the newly-launched Maestro on its cover.
The Maestro’s digital dash and voice synth proved to be rather like the rest of the car at launch – half baked, under-developed and unreliable. It was rudimentary and quickly called out as no advance on perfectly decent analogue dials. These days we’d also be more precise and call it a digital instrument panel – and that’s what I am focusing on here, not the infotainment screens et al which have dominated car dashboards for a number of years now.
Of course, the Maestro was not the first. The Aston Martin Lagonda claims that title (according to Wiki), arriving in 1976, and then the 1978 Cadillac Seville came along with the first Cadillac Trip Computer. Renault also rained on BL’s parade by moving the launch of the 11 (with its Electronic version) by a few days to enable it to be the first in Europe with a voice synthesiser. As an aside, there was an absolutely mint version of the 11 Electronic at our local classic car event last year and was definitely my car of the show.
Beyond that point, manufacturers have flirted with the digital dash. BL themselves persisted briefly, giving a slightly more sophisticated iteration to the MG and Vanden Plas versions of the Montego – Maestro’s younger, bigger sister – but then lost interest. Citroën seems to have been more committed than most: our old Picasso had a very simple speedo, fuel and temperature gauge display; my C6 has a fuller suite including a tacho and, of course, a basic HUD.
In fact, thinking about it, I have had a few cars which sported either a complete or partial digital dashboard, including a Mk1 Yaris (where the instruments were projected up onto screen within a pod, giving a slightly ghostly look), and the Mazda3 (which had a rather sporty, if oddly proportioned mix of a digital speedo in the bottom right hand corner of an analogue tacho). Mazda aside, I’d say that all have been functional and clear, but not really attractive. The thing that they have in common is that the main speedometer is a simple LED display of numbers/ digits, just like an old 70s – 80s digital watch, which spools numbers up and down – not a needle on a dial kind of thing.
The technology has moved on, of course. I can’t recall whether it was a first or not, but Jaguar’s last XJ made much more of a higher resolution LED screen to create digital dials – described as ‘virtual instruments’. I think I may be missing something about these, because I struggle to see the point in creating a virtual IP simply to mimic a nice set of analogue dials. Subsequent JLR vehicles have all gone this route to a lesser or greater extent.
To my mind, the real breakthrough for digital instrument clusters came with Audi’s ‘virtual cockpit’, which offered a number of different display options for the instrument panel. I seem to recall that this feature was first deployed on the Mk3 TT, helping to create what I have always thought was a really clean dash and delightful design, with neat details like the temperature settings shown on small LED digital displays set into the HVAC controls. ‘Virtual cockpit’s’ party trick is being able to show a SatNav display, speedo and tacho all on the same IP screen. At this point, one could start to see a manufacturer starting to explore the potential of the technology.
It doesn’t always work the way manufacturers intend, though. BMW has certainly yet to make a digital dashboard which looks or feels like it is taking the game forward. Part of BMW’s issue is that it always had a fine reputation for making some of the most iconic and sumptuous analogue instruments. With their clear, unfussy markings and warm orange-glow illumination, BMW set the standard. Their current attempts at digital displays are clumsy and fussy. It’s one of a number of factors (styling being the other key one) which has started something of a backlash against the brand in the motoring press.
An article reviewing the new 340i xDrive by Adam Towler in this February’s Evo magazine puts it perfectly:
“… as for the all-digital instruments, it’s almost impossible now to get a reading on either speed or revs from the dials in your peripheral vision. Clear instrumentation was once a cornerstone of BMW interiors, but not here, and that’s not me being a luddite, it’s simply a matter of ergonomics and HMI (human-machine-interfaces). It might be clever to have fancy graphics, but if as a driver you can’t see them as clearly or quickly, then there’s a problem. Why go in this direction?”
Let’s hope that manufacturers start to get the hang of it as such displays are now becoming the norm. From the new 208 with it’s 3D, hologram-like, layered display to the forthcoming new S-class and Rolls Royce Ghost, via the new versions of the Golf, Leon, A3 and Octavia; digital dashboards are wiping out their analogue forebears.
Perhaps I should have entitled this piece From Novelty to Nightmare?, but, in truth, it’s not all bad. I just think that each of digital and analogue displays have their place. I cannot imagine a Royce without a beautifully wrought set of classic dials, but do think the simple digital display suited the Picasso just fine. And, clever though it is, I think Tesla’s solution for the Model 3 is just wrong, even if it could be considered the ultimate car-interior interpretation of Computer World.
Maybe, with persistence, I will ‘get’ that as well?