Computer World

After almost five decades of sporadic appearances and false dawns, is the digital dashboard finally in inexorable ascendency?

computer word - rhino
(Source: Rhino)

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.

mg maestro dash - angelfire
The height of dashboard digital technology in 1983 (Source: angelfire)

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.

BL’s nemesis – the 11 Electronic – Classics on the Common (Source: my Moto G4)

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.

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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.

2011-jaguar-xj-lcd-cluster - automotive addicts
Jag XJ ‘virtual instruments’ – struggling to see the point (Source: automotive addicts)

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.

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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?

13-bmw-320d-2019-uk-fd-instruments - autocar
Clever and fancy, but not clear and easy to assimilate – the latest BMW 3’s digital IP (source: Autocar)

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.

2021-rolls-royce-ghost-spy-photo - Motor1
Rolls Royce goes all MG Maestro (Source: Motor1)

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?

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

29 thoughts on “Computer World”

  1. When I bought my current Audi a couple of months ago the biggest challenge was to find one with a manual gearbox and without virtual cockpit.
    The conventional instruments are nasty enough, with tacho and speedo being only marginally bigger than a watch and fuel and temperature gauges as silly LED strips along the rim of the main dials.
    But the virtual cockpit is even worse, depending on its operating mode. The mode shown in the TT’s interior shot shows a map as the main display (by the way: what’s the use of a Google Maps display or a 3D map in a car? Is it because drivers aren’t able to read a conventional map anymore? Seems to be so, because otherwise there would be no need for a function like the A8’s that shows places in Google Maps where you can turn around your car…) with nearly invisible main instruments pushed into the corners of the display with a size that makes reading them nearly impossible.

    One particularly mad joke was when Citroen gave buyers of the BX 19 digit this instrument panel

    instead of what everybody else got

    1. Yes, the revised E21 is certainly better with the rotary HVAC controls, and it had additional ventilation outlets. My brother-in-law had one back in the day and it was a model of clarity, with nice red instrument lighting at night.

    2. Mike: I think all the current models come with that view out the window as standard. Models in the 1970s had to make do with an image of a Bavarian suburb.

  2. A comparison between the original 1975 BMW 3 Series dashboard and the current model is instructive:


    1. My idea of a really good car is the 1976 sort of interior shown above made to today´s standards. You don´t need anything else. Like pretty much everything on sale there´s too much clutter inside cars.
      There might not be a big market for my vision but I am sure about 15,000 people a year would buy it and nothing else would do. You could basically charge 60,000e for a car equipped like a Hyundai i30 but made with Volvo S90 materials. You wouldn´t be surprised that I´d make it no bigger than 4.6 metres long. Less is sometimes more, way more.

    2. The E21 dashboard is a very early example with switchgear seemingly taken from Bosch’s forklifter parts catalogue. Later E21s had rotary HVAC controls and looked much better:

    3. I think that the view out of the windscreen is better in the latest version but that’s all in my opinion.

    4. Dare I say if you swap most drivers of one into the other they would be stuck? The E21 drivers due to the massive change in layout and operation of controls, and the G20 drivers due to the manual gearbox.

  3. The thing I like about the virtual cockpit in the Audi TT is that there’s no centre screen. Not a huge fan of those things as most manufacturers are unable to come up with a solution that looks good. However I don’t really like the big map and small instruments. Too distracting and as Dave mentioned the other instruments are too small.

    As for the other dashboards: No complaints about the simple Yaris setup, but in a more upmarket car I would find it unacceptable. The instruments on the Xsara and both ‘regular’ and digital BX are a mess. very unclear and not easy to read. I don’t like the lights that indicate the revs in the ‘regular’ BX. CX’s were even worse as the tachometer couldn’t keep up with a heavy right foot. The revs would still increase if you lifted off after hard acceleration. Different for the sake of being different, instead of being better. As for the C6: the instruments look way too cheap in an executive saloon. Together with the clumsy HUD definitely a dealbreaker.

    The Mazda setup looks quite nice, but the speed seems a little hard to read. The Jag’s dash is indeed a bit pointless. The instruments of a MX-5 ND pretty much look the same, but only the fuel and temperature gauge and minor instruments are digital. Also when the language was set to Dutch in the Jag some of the textlines wouldn’t fit in the circular dial. The text just overlapped with the surrounding dial. I tried to find a photo of it, but sadly I failed, cause it looks proper silly.

    The BMW’s instruments aren’t attractive (like they used to), but I don’t find them too hard read. What I dislike here is that when the virtual needle travels along the increase in speed isn’t linear. You can see this also with traditional gauges in VAG products and Saabs for instance. I know the reason behind this idea is that it’s more important to see precisely how fast your going at lower speeds. In my view a solution to a non-existing problem.

    1. For the C6, I’m still a bit unclear whether I find it very good or not. In principle, its no-nonsense design appeals very much to me. The sort of digitally imaged fake chrome bezels on today’s displays are pure horror. What the C6 could have used are a bit more modern graphics and typefaces, and better colour matching between the dashboard and the HUD. The latter actually wasn’t too bad for 2005, but as with pretty much everything else, PSA ‘forgot’ to update it regularly over the car’s 7-year lifespan.

      With years of C6 experience I’ve become a true fan of ‘digital’ speedos, provided they have big, clear numbers and don’t change them too hectically. Every time I have to drive a car with traditional dials, I find them much less comfortable to read (especially if I want an exact reading close to the speed limit). Maybe in an older car where the scale doesn’t have to go to 300 km/h, and where the dial is large and clear, it’s more acceptable.

  4. Bravo, SVR. A splendid retro tour. A big thanks too for highlighting a gap in my musical collection; a trawl through the iPods memory banks to K found Computer World to be missing: no longer. Some modern ideas work; it took seconds to cheaply download.

    Like so many of you mention above, I too think some of the older, less cluttered, less ostentatious ways are best. Chances of heading back to analogue methodology? Like finding an in working order Aston Martin Lagonda

  5. After having used a number of fairly up-to-date rental cars, I got to drive a friend’s BMW E30 last summer – which was eye opening insofar as that car’s cockpit cannot be improved upon in terms of ergonomics, just as the gauges’ legibility was profoundly impressive. Sat-nav excepted, there was not a single modern feature I missed. To the contrary, I find the absence of an engine oil temperature gauge in most modern cars rather disconcerting.

    As I mentioned the other day in another thread, there’s very little I find impressive about Audi’s virtual cockpit. Maybe I’m simply easily overwhelmed, but to me, it was all too much of everything.

    1. Then it most probably was an M3 because standard BMWs had a silly fuel consumption gauge at the same place.

  6. Here’s a properly digital dashboard that isn’t trying to fake real instruments:

    It’s from the original Fiat Tipo and I thought it really suited the style of the car. There was an analogue alternative on some (cheaper?) models:

    I like the unapologetic design of the digital dash, but the analogue was almost certainly easier to read.

  7. That ‘two-storey’ Tipo digital dashboard reminded me of this bit of weirdness, from the original 205:

    For some reason they separated the instruments from the warning lights with a horizontal bar, which squashed the former into an unnecessarily shallow space.

    Common sense was restored when the 205 GTI was lsunched:

  8. The sweet spot is probably found in a combination of analogue and digital instruments. This is the instrument cluster in my Boxster:

    The right-hand dial is fully programmable and can display infotainment, telephone and trip-computer information as well as engine read-outs. I leave mine set to the latter. The digital speedometer is switchable from mph to Km/h so there’s no need for both sets of markings on the analogue dial: you get whichever is appropriate for your country only.

    Sorry for the fuzzy photo, taken in my garage.

    1. Interesting, Daniel – do you ever use the analogue speedo, or do you just read the digital one in the centre? I ask, as the analogue dial has an unusual scale (each marker is 5 mph).

      Following on from huwgwilliam’s comments re clarity, below, among the best dials I’ve seen are on a mk5 Polo (p21):

      Click to access Polo%20model%20brochure%20-%20December%202011.pdf

      I had to look up ‘skeuomorphic’ – mimicking objects in real life. I shall try to add it to my vocabulary.

    2. There was some fuss when Apple decided to abandon skuemorphic characteristics on the iPhone 6, I think. The thinking was that people had got used to digital readouts so why make them look like they were analogue. Well, the answer is that the shadows added depth and made the display more intelligible. It´s the same debate as the one on whether to use wood-effect plastic or not.

    3. Hi Charles, you’ve guessed correctly: I never use the analogue speedometer. The markings are useless in that, apart from 50mph, they don’t correspond to our speed limits. The km/h version is even worse: it’s only marked at 50 km/h intervals:

      The digital speedometer is pretty good in that it’s not hyperactive like some early versions that continually flickered up and down. It seems to be ‘damped’ so it changes up or down if the change in speed is maintained. (I hope that explanation makes sense.)

      The Mk5 Polo’s instruments are indeed a model of clarity and the brochure you linked to reminds me how nice that car was, so much better than the overwrought current model.

      ‘Skeuomorphic’ is a new word for me too. Great!

    4. I never use the analogue speedo on my car either, although for a specific reason – my Smart roadster is a UK import and of course comes with an MPH speedometer, with the legally mandated KMH alternative being supplied by a tiny digital display which has to serve as my primary means of ascertaining how much within the limit I am proceeding at. Having become accustomed to that and finding myself carless due to the Current Unpleasantness (car sitting in temporarily closed garage awaiting parts) I’ve been borrowing my father’s Focus and I find that I prefer to set the trip computer display to show just the speed as a digital display.

    5. Speedos marked at 50 kph intervals are a long standing Porsche feature introduced shortly after the 911 came to market. Porsche often was criticised for this seemingly snobbish feature. Lower powered 911 T models sometimes had 20 kph markings, Carrera 3.2s had 30 kph markings for some time but in the end these 50 kph are a part of the Porsche magic…

  9. A lovely article, which prompted lots of other thoughts, as so many do.

    It took a while for modern digital displays to integrate well with vehicle interiors and I’d credit Jaguar’s adoption of what has been termed ‘vodka bar chic’ (e.g. in the current XJ) in helping this process. Just shoving green LEDs in to a traditional wood and leather interior wasn’t going to work.

    At the other end of the scale, I came across this sympathetic review of a 1955, British-built 2CV, which lives in Tasmania. It makes one wonder just how much we really need. I think its interior light (at 10:50) is a work of art.

  10. I work in digital interfaces – not for cars but for apps, phones, computers – and my experience with car tech is that it’s usually about 5 years or more behind them. In this case of digital instruments it’s definitely more.

    Nearly ten years ago now there was a tectonic shift in interface design for phones, going from overly fussed with 3d, rich, vibrant, skeuomorphic, shiny representations of text, icons and everything in between to a more rational flat aesthetic where clear, simple icons and unadorned text and numbers without adornment were able to do their work unimpeded by the fuss.

    (Ironically that rational teutonic look is probably influenced by dashes by those in Ingolstadt, Munich etc. )

    But the purveyors of car dashes seem not to have realised this shift to the simple, functional and clear, and are—on the whole —incredibly overwrought affairs festooned in unnecessary flashy details (neé tackiness) that bring nothing to the table other than visual confusion. Which is a terrible thing when a glance and subsequent misreading of info could lead to any number of medium-bad to life-ending actions.

    The ability to customise your driving dash to suit you, layering or moving discrete objects like GPS, HVAC controls and your driving playlist are great advances, as is the ability to use kinetic visual effects to better demonstrate some informational concepts – but in the car industry it very much still feels like the new ‘shiny thing’ and will take a good amount of time to mature and for the makers to realise that sometimes a white number ’60’ typeset in Eurostile Extended (THE dashboard typeface), with no shadows, flames, swishing chrome effects or kinetic wobbles when you rev the engine, is actually the best, unobtrusive way to impart information to a driver who’s last need is to have their attention diverted by natty little animations that are dangerous, damaging to years of branding and that date the car so terribly.

    This is why the analogue dials on a 1920s or 50s or 70s car are so much more functional and timeless than a OLED display with a lifetime of about 7 years with the odd dead pixel, tacky font and shonky touch interface that hates your driving gloves.

    As the old phrases go:

    Form follows function
    Fashion Fades, Style remains.

    1. This was an interesting an informative comment, thanks. Like the others, I learned new things from your input, which is always welcome.

      The way I see it – and in the same mind as Richard’s comment later on – at the moment, car manufacturers still largely see digital IPs (and touchscreens) as a gimmick and a bit of a toy, and to be fair-ish to them, joe public can’t seem to get enough, even though I think that’s more about following a fashion than finding the new technology truly useful, let alone enhancing the driving experience.

      Hopefully, consumers will start to expect more from the new tech, rather than just be pleased that it exists in their new car in the first place.

  11. I vote for Daniel’s Porsche ideal. My Mazda6 has an optional HUD display for the digital numbers – I really couldn’t be bothered to get it. The two main dials are big clear unmistakeably marked central speedo and almost as large tachometer to its left with fuel gauge below the two. There is no digital speed readout. On the right is the LCD configurable part. Choose between engine temp and fuel consumption rendered in easy to read analogue bar form, and constant outside temp, odometers, radar ACC when a digital speed reading finally appears if engaged, and a compass for those lost. I refused the $500 navigation for the infotainment screen, so it’s a glorified radio – fine by me. I’m driving a car not a smartphone, which connects if I need it. It works so well I never even think about it until an article like this one appears – of which there are a fair few these days with digital glass taking over. My previous Subaru dash from 2008 was similar to the Mazda. Both have manual rotary HVAC controls with autotemp and sync for the front seats, and an easy to use without thinking gear selector. Some car manufacturers seem to be so besotted with glass they make it howl “look at me!” when that’s not what’s needed for driving if distraction is to be minimized. The real reason they’re going to glass is because it’s cheap. When you can buy a laptop for $129 retail, guess what a complete glass cockpit costs them. Nothing, and lookit all the switches and wiring you can dump as well!

    1. That´s pretty much the same argument as was made for the change from rotary dials to switches for HVAC. It also says something about the companies´ opinion of the customers. I wouldn´t offer buttons or glass interfaces for these controls if I was making a car on the stupid grounds that people would prefer the most ergonomic solution. I am the one who is wrong: most customers will accept rubbish and quite bad rubbish too. That makes me sound like Setright, doesn´t it?

  12. More than the stupidly engorged kidney grilles, or the abandonment of the simple Hoffmeister kink, BMW’s new digital dials really, really upset me.

    Older BMWs are a master class in ergonomics and clarity. Why abandon this?

    I choose to wear a watch with a proper, analogue clock face. If any car maker wants to know what ‘premium’ looks like, look there.

    1. I hadn’t noticed previously noticed (or subconsciously chose to ignore) the degree to which the new and improved ‘Van Hooydonk kink’ is popping up just about everywhere on new BMWs. If you look at that picture of the current 3 Series dashboard above, it’s evident in the shape of the central vent outlets, interior door handles, the horizontal spokes of the steering wheel, and even the shape of the digital instruments.

      The outer edges of the new and improved kidney grille are also ‘Van Hooydonk Kinky’:

      He must really like it.

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