Staring At Screens

The curious unimportance of visibility in modern car design.

2021 Cadillac Escalade. Image: GM Authority

An oft-noted, yet insufficiently regretted, development in car design in the past 20-odd years has been the ever-rising waistline of the average automobile; a development that, combined with increasingly thick window pillars, has had a seriously negative impact on visibility out of the car (not to mention the effect on interior ambiance).

Looking around at the flanks of cars nowadays, one might be tempted to conclude that designers were simply desirous of a larger canvas upon which to draw their favoured creases, slashes, folds, curves and gashes but the general tenor of response to said development suggests that safety demands are at least partly responsible for the ever-decreasing glasshouse of our personal conveyances.

Whilst there is undoubtedly some truth to the statement that safety concerns (and legislation) have fostered developments such as thicker pillars and higher bonnet lines, it seems equally true to observe that car manufacturers have gone rather further than was necessary.

I recently read (in the IT news site ‘The Verge’, of all places) of the latest model of tank… forgive me, SUV developed by Cadillac, which they themselves describe as the largest and longest Escalade ever. This behemoth of a machine is almost 2 metres tall and features a cliff-like front end, the visual design of which suggests something intended to mince any pedestrians foolish enough to venture into its path.

The sheer look. (c) Motor Trend

Indeed, the writer in question also published a picture of his three-year-old child standing in the huge front blind spot of the car, caused by the sheer height of the front end (far taller than the child) that was chilling to view. In the US there has been some media attention surrounding the blind spots caused by large SUVs and when Cadillac themselves were asked about this aspect of the Escalade’s design, they pointed out various automated alert and safety systems such as pedestrian braking in their defence.

This does not, however, adequately explain the existence of the problem in the first place. Perhaps such things should not surprise me. A little while ago, I was delighted to receive the news that my father had replaced his Nissan Juke, a car that itself had replaced the splendidly practical and well-designed Nissan Note on my parents’ driveway.
The Juke.

I had been a happy passenger in the Note many times, enjoying the acres of room that it’s boxy design afforded passengers and the pleasant airiness of it’s light interior. All the more shocking to be exposed thereafter to the purgatorial experience of being a passenger in the Juke; a car that doesn’t so much sacrifice comfort and practicality on the altar of style as much as it does hang, draw and quarter them, followed by a ceremony of the dark arts intended to desecrate their spirits.

The Juke’s shallow windows and strangely curved body shape did not just create a cramped, dark and claustrophobic passenger compartment (hardly helped by the black-on-black with black highlights interior trim) but also severely hindered visibility out of the car, as is the case with so many current models.

On one occasion, I was in the car as my father was attempting a parking manoeuvre and noticed he was having trouble getting into the spot. I was shocked to see that, as he was trying to reverse into a space, he was not actually looking out of the car at all but was staring at a screen in the dashboard, upon which a helicopter view of the car and the space around it was displayed, relayed from tiny cameras mounted around the Juke’s bodyshell.

As a technical accomplishment, this parking aid was highly impressive (it also showed a visual indication of the angle at which you would reverse, given the amount of steering lock applied) but, as with the aforementioned Cadillac, begged the question why the system was made necessary by bad basic design.

Do not misunderstand me; I am not opposed to useful electronic aids such as parking sensors. In fact, I’m delighted that a primitive version of these is fitted to my new Rover’s rather lengthy posterior. My complaint is that styling seems to be necessitating such things, rather than allowing them to be aids.

The really strange thing is that, outside of rarefied environments such as this site, no one seems to mind; I have yet to hear a single non-enthusiast complain about the frankly comical size of the C pillars on many modern cars and the accompanying terrible visibility, presumably because everyone just stares at the screen instead.

So is there any hope at all of a return to the slender car bodies, slim pillars, expansive glasshouses and airy interiors of the late 20th century? Well, in a sense no: Whilst slim pillars can also be strong (just ask Saab), if such things also need to hold airbags and electronics they will inevitably grow in girth. There is however, quite some distance between the product of this necessity and the bizarre excesses currently displayed in car showrooms. Monsters like the Escalade are completely inexcusable.

Perhaps one day self-driving cars will make all of this moot and we will be left staring wistfully at faded pictures of Fulvia Coupés and the like. In the meantime however, it would be nice if car designers made a little more effort to make their products driveable using the windows, rather than the screens.

Author: Chris Elvin

Appreciator of dead and dying marques. Drowns his sorrows with good wine.

34 thoughts on “Staring At Screens”

  1. 100% agree with this. Please allow me to advance one theory as to why it may be happening.

    I have felt for some years that car designers are increasingly de-prioritising the glasshouse as a design element, in favour of their unhealthy obsessions with gargantuan wheels, grilles, and ridiculously baroque surfacing. One only needs to look at modern car design sketches to see where designers’ priorities are – where they want your eye to be drawn. Maybe that’s where the problem starts. On the drawing board (or tablet).

    Car design sketches, like fashion design sketches, are voluntarily disproportioned for effect. My wife was a fashion designer for many years, and in her design sketches the models always appeared absurdly tall, with tiny pinheads and grotesque 10 ft long legs. When questioned, she explained that this was the accepted design vocabulary in the industry. This type of sketch was the expectation. This appears true in the car industry too. The problem is, crazily disproportioned drawings will eventually lead to crazy disproportionate designs, which will eventually become the norm. Which will then feed back into new design sketches, and the vicious circle is complete.

    Also, what is with the current trend towards all-black interiors? Black headlining? Who ever thought that was a good idea? Are they agoraphobes that need reassurance? Perhaps they miss the black walls and ceilings in their home?

    1. How comforting, on a dank and cheerless morning, to learn that I am not alone in deploring the claustrophobic properties of the monstrosities which are currently being foisted upon us. Ric’s theory is spot-on, too. As for all-black interiors, Douglas Adams came up with that one years ago…..

    2. Goodness gracious! Rick, that drawing is seriously awful! Such bad taste. I hope someone builds it so idiots can buy them and then I can have a laugh at them wasting precious unrecoverable wealth on grot.

    3. Thanks for sharing the information regarding the mores of design sketching Ric. Your theory is interesting but may beg a question whilst seeking to answer one: Are these mores really so new? If not, what has caused the change in translation?

      As to JTC’s comment, I will confess that Douglas Adam’s words were in my mind as I described the Juke’s interior…

  2. much thanks Chris, Ric too, for articulating this issue so well.
    as someone who prefers small cars, I have been increasingly
    offended by the over-resourced obsesities crowding our streets.
    driving is a communal activity, to diminish visibility is to
    seriously neglect our reponsibilities to each other on the road.
    o for a consumer revolt, o for the return of beauty in design.

    1. It’s interesting that small cars seem to be the last refuge of good design in current production models: The Up! triplets, the Panda and the Fiesta are all commendable.

    2. I don’t suffer from agoraphobia. Quite the opposite in fact: I do live in all white interior and people sometimes complain on the lack of colour. In reality the white reflects colour wonderfully: my house is bright red when there’s a good sunrise or sunset, white during a normal day, blueish when it gets dark and grayish now that there’s fog. Lovely when I’m stationary, bad when I’m on the move, I don’t need that at all.

      In fact I find it quite disturbing that ones moods is influenced by the colour of a car interior. The benefits of a black interior, especially a black dashboard were, as far as I know, first described by Gabriel Voisin. He pointed out that this caused the least amount of distraction and as a result the driver could focus more on the road. An idea derived from airplane cockpits and one that still holds true to this day. For the same reason I like black headlining too. A bit of colour on the seats is OK, but I don’t notice it much when I drive, so that might be black as well.

  3. Well said, Chris, I couldn’t agree more with the points you are making. Ric has, I think, identified why we are in this absurd situation. Some might argue it is a function of safety regulations dictating a stronger passenger cell, but surely there are high-strength materials that can achieve this without the added bulk and loss of visibility?

    Anyone who saw Romain Grosjean’s horrific accident at yesterday’s Bahrain F1 Grand Prix must marvel at how the ‘halo’ device withstood an estimated 30g deceleration and saved him from decapitation by the barrier. Why can’t that sort of materials technology be incorporated into the pillars of motor vehicles to restore adequate levels of visibility?

    1. A very good question Daniel (and I fear the answer already given may be correct) but the whole issue here, I contend, is that designers are going further than practically necessary: Perhaps the trend would continue unabated even if the cost of new materials technology was not an issue?

    2. Hi John. Fair point, succinctly made(!) but I’m not suggesting they use something that can resist a deceleration of 30g! Surely there’s a design and materials solution that would meet modern crash requirements and still get us close to the levels of visibility offered by this, for example:

      The excellent all-round visibility is evident even in the photo. Compare with this, which is by no means the worst offender:

      In any event, I think the issue is still more a result of current automotive fashion than safety requirements per se.

    3. Hi Daniel, thank you very much for the pictures, here you can talk somehow about distort evolution, the genes of BMW are well recognizable, double lights in front and c pillar with that internal change of direction.

    4. Funny you should say that, Marco. That’s my current work-in-progress!

    5. I can’t stop looking at the two BMW pictures Daniel posted above and feel slightly weepy. How far we have fallen, how quickly.

  4. I had the privilege of driving an opel agila A, a horrible car outside, and with stability close to the limits, yet it had an extremely abundant space inside.

    1. Marco, I assume the Opel you refer to is, like a Vauxhall of the same name, a re-badged Suzuki Wagon R. In which case I agree entirely – an object lesson in the maximum use of interior space and all-round field of vision but not a vehicle in which to have a significant collision (I disagree about its looks, though). She-who-must-be-obeyed had one which I thoroughly enjoyed driving; the limits of stability were never apparent but probably because it encouraged the use of bus-driving techniques in order to make rapid progress….
      Bus passengers do not wear seat belts (they may even be standing) and therefore do not appreciate being thrown around by over exuberant drivers. The technique is to plan ahead sufficiently to avoid having to brake for corners and to always be in the right gear but still maintain a tightly timed schedule. Apparently stability-challenged vehicles can’t ‘arf be made to shift!
      But Lorender’s comment is also well made, making Daniel’s design challenge all the more pertinent.

    2. Hi JTC, you made me laugh! Actually with that shape, I do not know what the design could have been.

  5. It’s well documented that people are having increasing difficulty seeing out of cars and actually complain about it in surveys. However, people still go ahead and buy them – perhaps they think there’s nothing that can be done.

    It seems ludicrous that other, vulnerable road users and pedestrians are being put at increasing risk in the name of vehicle occupant safety.

    I thought Euro NCAP were meant to be building the ability to see out in to their ratings programme; or are they just relying on censors and automation?

    And I wonder what happened to JLR’s 360 Virtual Urban Windscreen…

    …or to Volvo’s clever latticework in their Safety Concept Car from 2000.

  6. Does the angle of the windscreen have any bearing on the issue? Will a longer, flatter A-pillar necessarily be thicker than a shorter, more upright one to provide the same strength?

    1. Hello Jonathan, I would have thought so. Could the answer therefore be to have 50s style panoramic windscreens with dog leg / reverse rake pillars, to maintain aerodynamics?

  7. The Jag’s windscreen would be too confusing for people who’d see a dupe of that image in their side window too.
    And you don’t look out of the rear window because you’re too obese to turn.

    And your intense lobbying of the EuroNCap people gives you what you want to make, not what a toddler needs.

  8. I remember when manufacturers used to include plan view diagrams in their brochures proudly illustrating the number of degrees of visibility their slim pillars afforded.

    Those days are long gone. It feels like passive safety has been prioritised over active safety. As well as being harder to see around, thick pillars are also much harder for fire services to cut through. Cars are increasingly fortress like and sadly this is reflected in the attitude of many of their drivers.

  9. We had a Nissan Juke as a rental car on a weekend. Two times in once, the first and the last time.
    An interior completely in different shades of black, a coal mine. The best-wife-of-all had a very sporty seating position on the passenger seat, she sat more or less on the floor of the car, the seat had no height adjustment. Her nose was approximately on the lower edge of the window. She was not amused. As the driver I felt a little better, the seat had a height adjustment, when fully extended I could look over the dashboard. The overview was more or less close to “1” on a 10 scale.
    A. Horrible. Drive.

    The black interior started in the late 70s.
    Companies like Volvo or Saab who had chosen “safety” as their USP, said something about “black has less reflection” and is “safer”.
    The Bimmers and want-to-be’s said something about “sporty” – rally/racing cars have black inside, so black must be sporty.

    No wonder the bean counters quickly decided to offer only one version – black – for cost reasons. The security fanatics and the wannabe sportsmen made it easy for them. A small minority gnashed their teeth when they bought a car, but thanks to the distance one couldn’t hear them up in the ivory towers.

    Of course, there were some companies that had not received the memo. Like Lancia or Rover, to name just two – we all know how they ended up.

    When in the 80’s the private leasing came up, the last nail was driven into the coffin, because people started to configure their new car not according to their own taste, but only according to the criteria of resale.
    (Often they had to. I remember the last company car of my father, a 928. The choice of the exterior colour was about 2% of the choice in the brochure, for the interior there were only 2 colours: black and blacker).

    I won’t go into the psychology of the design of the tanks we have on streets nowadays, whether they called SUV or what ever. For any rant, my lifetime is too short and would blow up the storage capacity of DTW’s server.
    To make a long story short: we lost taste and compensated the loss with cocooning (to avoid the word “antisocial”). In the best case the exterior design doesn’t hurt, in the worst case it’s just Show-off.

    (The reason, we need more fake inlets, much more fake inlets. And, not to forgett, L E T T E R S ! Give me a break, if you have to write the name in LETTERS on the back of a car, it says almost everything about everything…)

  10. I like this article.
    I like Freerk de Ruiter’s response.
    I like Fred G. Eger’s reply.
    I love DTW!

  11. Have also found the increased difficulty seeing out of cars over the pass few decades with the growth in blind spots / pillars to be very vexing to the point where have looked to older cars that have no such issue. Seems like it was not that apparent on cars built up to the mid/late-90s to early-00s.

    Feel for those who are otherwise eligible to drive yet are partially sighted in one eye (or have some other visual disability) and have little to no alternatives as far as newer cars with good visibility are concerned, since it basically affects their ability to drive as well as their independence / livelihoods that otherwise would have not been a problem in the past.

    1. I recall reading not so long ago about accidents involving motorcycles or bikes with modern cars, with many of the car drivers saying they simply didn’t see the bike. When the investigators looked into the crashes in more detail, they found the thick A pillars were obscuring the driver’s vision for a short but significant amount of time.

      There are no such visibility issues in the Dyane, but then self-preservation also leads to more careful attention to other road users as a collision with anything more substantial than a push bike is not something worth entertaining!

  12. Late to the party as ever, however despite being a whole day late I feel impelled to comment as thick A pillars are my ultimate motoring hate issue.
    I feel they started getting too thick [For proper visibility] at around the turn of the Millennium. I recall an old college friend giving me a lift circa 2002 in a Rover 100 a.k.a Metro which she had been given. I sat in the passenger seat and marvelled at the wonderful visibility, whilst trying to ignore the nagging concern that the A pillars as skinny as a gibbon’s nose picking finger were probably one of the reasons it got it’s notorious Euro NCAP crash test rating, a motoring bombshell that was still being talked about in pubs. Yet new cars from the naughties- today’s old cars- seem to have such slender pillars; what was bad enough has got a whole lot worse.
    At around the same time I used to cycle to work and lost track of how many times I nearly got knocked
    off by drivers pulling out from junctions in Audi TT’s. It took me some time to work out that they can’t all have been numpties- although they were presumably driving TT’s by choice, seen as more practical alternatives were available cheaper…- they were pulling out because they had huge blind spots.
    In the 1980’s the Mercedes 190 [W201] looked noticeably chunkier than it’s 3 [E30] series arch enemy, which I thought was due to the 190’s double skinned A pillars, yet despite being famously sturdy they are not obviously much thicker than the E30. Going back to the mid 1960’s the S.A.A.B 99 could survive a full laden drop from 6′ thanks to it’s very strong [But skinny] A pillars. I recall that a sill to ceiling “Hoop” and full seam welding came into it. Note that the 99 had pillars about as thick as the Metro. Would a 99 or a 190, ahead of their time for safety as they were, be able to survive today’s all important frontal offset crash test that puts all the impact stresses on one side of the car’s nose? I’d be interested to know.

    1. Hello Richard,

      I can answer one question – the M-B 190 would survive an offset test, although I’m not sure of the speed (see 2:41 in the film). Nevertheless, still very good for getting on for 40 years ago (gulp). I’m pretty sure it’d be asking too much of the 99, though – it’s a really tough test.

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