Cool? Or just clunky? The fight over dashboard touch screens

As luxury cars become rolling supercomputers, designers are wondering how big is too big

By Lawrence Ulrich

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In an undated image provided by BMW, back-seat passengers in BMW’s i7 sedan can watch movies on a 31-inch screen. (BMW via The New York Times)
In an undated image provided by BMW, back-seat passengers in BMW’s i7 sedan can watch movies on a 31-inch screen. (BMW via The New York Times)

Published: Tue 25 Apr 2023, 6:57 PM

Last updated: Tue 25 Apr 2023, 6:58 PM

From pocket-stretching smartphones to wall-hogging TVs, Americans have often asked: How much screen is too much?

The question has come to today’s gadget-stuffed cars, whose increasingly colossal screens are splitting opinions among designers, car buyers and industry critics. These do-it-all touch screens, the nerve centers of many new cars, have sparked a backlash because of their size, as well as the clunky interfaces that may take eyes off the road.

“I think we’ve reached Peak Screen,” said Klaus Busse, Maserati’s head of design, who previously led design for Alfa Romeo, Fiat and Lancia. “Screens have their right of existence — they do a lot of things better than physical switches. It’s just been pushed a little too far.”

Beyond having ergonomic and safety concerns, some luxury designers object on aesthetic grounds. To them, screens just aren’t sexy or luxurious.

“When flat screens showed up, the-bigger-the-better was the trend,” said Kai Langer, head of design for BMW i, the automaker’s electric division. “But ‘bigger’ isn’t always the richest.”

Screens are now integral to most modern cars, which are more or less rolling supercomputers, running up to 14 times more code than a Boeing 787. And designers must keep in mind the demands of car owners who expect that their Apple or Android smartphones will hook up flawlessly.

A dashboard screen in the new Mercedes-Benz EQS SUV, in Woodstock, Ala., March 15, 2022. (David Walter Banks/The New York Times)
A dashboard screen in the new Mercedes-Benz EQS SUV, in Woodstock, Ala., March 15, 2022. (David Walter Banks/The New York Times)

“Steve Jobs changed the world, and now mankind touches a screen,” said Gorden Wagener, chief designer for Mercedes-Benz. “That fundamentally changes the car as well. The car needs a good interface, not just a wiper switch and turn indicator.”

When Elon Musk unveiled the Tesla Model S in 2009, the command centre, with its 17-inch LCD touch screen, seemed nearly as game-changing as the car itself. And in giving drivers digital control of automotive functions, Tesla was able to avoid the expense of engineering, wiring and building a cabin full of pricey analog switches, knobs and gauges — or having to buy them from another automaker or supplier.

In Tesla’s bare-bones Model 3 and Model Y especially, one might suspect that interior designers worked overtime on their ingenious screens and then called it a day. A number of Tesla’s competitors mimicked the cabins’ austere, vaguely sci-fi vibe.

The creators of later electric vehicles — including BMW’s futuristic yet sumptuous iX and the Kia EV6 — came up with warmer car interiors better suited to drivers who may not want to feel as if they are spending hours inside the mainframe from “Tron.” Some designers are even ditching that most played-out of EV tropes, the Mac-like monochromes of grey-silver-white.

With its expanded touch screen, Tesla also spurred an arms race measured in inches. Ford stuffed a 15.5-inch screen into its Mustang Mach-e and F-150 Lightning EVs. The startup Rivian has installed a 16-inch display in the R1T and R1S models. Another California company, Lucid, created a 34-inch, curved-glass screen for the Air sedan.

And then there is the “Hyperscreen,” from Mercedes-Benz.

Powered by eight processors, framed under a sculptural slab of double-coated glass, the Hyperscreen (actually three screens that appear as one) spreads 56 inches of digital interface across the dashboard. Augmented-reality navigation generates virtual street signs and directional guides over the pavement in a real-time camera view. Almost magically, virtual address numbers hover over homes and businesses as you approach a destination.

Yet the Hyperscreen doesn’t always work as elegantly as it looks — especially when drivers are, well, driving. Issues include fussy thumb-pad controls on the steering wheel and moments of hair-pulling confusion, especially for customers who grew up with pre-digital rides. Wagener said Mercedes intentionally launched Hyperscreen in its electric vehicles to aim it at tech-savvy customers.

BMW is no stranger to screens, having ushered in iDrive more than 20 years ago on the 7-Series sedan. That digital operating system, with a now-quaint 6.5-inch screen atop the dashboard, infuriated many drivers because it was so hard to use. But as BMW refined it over the years, rival car companies adopted similar systems.

The i7 sedan, a new electric model from BMW, wraps a curved screen around the driver. The back of the car offers a 31-inch, fold-down theatre touch screen, with 5G connectivity and Amazon Fire for streaming. Another 5.5-inch screen nestles into each rear armrest.

At the annual CES in Las Vegas in January, BMW threw down that gauntlet by going well beyond the touch screen. In the iVision Dee, a concept sedan that previews a range of BMW “Neue Klasse” EVs — the first scheduled to arrive in 2025 — the windshield itself takes the place of a dashboard touch screen.

“Let’s use the biggest display we already have in a car, which is the windshield,” Langer said.

The augmented-reality windshield allows for “Minority Report”-style projections of traditional gauges (speedometer; temperature settings; audio displays) and social-and-streaming content. The system, which BMW will call Panoramic Vision on showroom models, greatly expands the head-up displays that project content into the field of view, allowing drivers to check the controls without looking away from the road.

For those leery of astral projections blocking their view of I-95, Langer said drivers could choose any display level. A “mixed reality slider” can limit traditional information, such as a speedometer, to a thin strip of lower windshield, where today’s head-up displays operate. Drivers more at ease with digital projections can fill more of the windshield glass with content. When the car isn’t moving, including during charging stops, passengers may eventually use the entire windshield like a virtual drive-in for movies, games, Zoom meetings or trips to the metaverse.

At the convention in Las Vegas, BMW Chair Oliver Zipse said he was convinced that regulators would eventually ban large dashboard screens because of safety concerns. “If you have to look down to operate your car, we think it’s a big mistake,” he told Automotive News Europe.

Langer noted that prominent screens do not appear in the pages of high-end shelter or architectural magazines. “None of our consumers would want to cover their living room in screens,” he said. “They want their Eames chair or Nelson clock. And we want our customers to feel at home.”

If touch screens shrink or even disappear from cars’ cabins, designers will be free to reclaim the interiors for something more aesthetically pleasing. “A touch screen doesn’t speak to our senses,” Langer said. “We’re made to touch fabrics and sense different surfaces; that’s what makes us human.”

Some of the iVision Dee’s fanciful tech — including a chameleon-like body that can instantly change to one of 32 colours — may be ditched or watered down in production versions. Yet BMW vows the panoramic display is bound for showrooms.

Mercedes-Benz is sceptical. While it offers head-up displays, it is convinced that windshield projections “are light-years behind the quality and resolution you can achieve on a screen,” Wagener said.

“It’s certainly an innovative approach,” he continued. “But we’ve tried it, and it’s disturbing or disorienting to have all that in your viewing area.”

Maserati is steering a middle course with its GranTurismo. Its interior includes a pair of screens that don’t draw attention to themselves.

“We don’t want a screen to be the main protagonist,” Busse said.

In his view, the car is a refuge from the digital world and its pressures.

“For us,” he said, “it’s still about the driving experience — to enjoy this beautiful machine and the countryside where you’re operating it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times


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