Hello, everyone! Today is an extra special day, because it’s Friday, and that means it’s time for your favorite, and my favorite, and everyone’s favorite Jalopnik column, Letters to Doug. Tomorrow is also an extra special day because it’s Colorado Day, which means the local DMV employees will probably bring in cupcakes.
For those of you who haven’t experienced Letters to Doug before, allow me to explain how it works. Each week I tackle one of today’s most pertinent automotive-related questions for your amusement and appreciation. And you can participate! Just send me an e-mail at Letters2Doug@gmail.com, and make it good, or else I will use someone else’s letter.
This week’s letter comes to us from a man named Walter, who has not listed a town, and therefore I will just assume it’s suburban St. Louis. Walter writes:
I write you today because I feel you can answer truthfully as I don’t think the Carmax or “not wearing pants” lobbies have strong enough feelings on this issue to taint your response: What is the deal with new cars and their infotainment screens looking like someone taped an iPad to the center console? For the past 10 years the object of console screens was to make them as large as possible while still being seamlessly integrated into the dash of the car (Tesla Model S) until one day someone said, “Hey, let’s design the interior without a screen,” then forgot their tablet was inside the model when it went out to actually get built so the builders just bolted a tablet to the dash.
So, what’s the reason manufacturers are doing this? Is the streamlined dashboard a thing of the past?
Now, if you have no idea what Walter is talking about, here’s the situation. In several modern cars — most notably Mazda and Mercedes-Benz products — the infotainment screen is no longer integrated into the center control stack. Instead, it’s tacked on above the center controls, where it a) brings you information, and b) looks like an iPad stuck to one of those iPad mounts they’re always advertising on infomercials.
So why the hell is it there?
I decided to answer this question because I get it all the time. Seriously. People are constantly asking me why the hell automakers feel it’s acceptable to place an infotainment screen in the center of the car that looks like an iPad glued to the dashboard. Sometimes people say this with true indignation, as if the screen in question pooped on their lawn.
And so now I’ve been given a soapbox to provide my answer. And my answer is: because most people don’t really care that much.
Allow me to explain.
When you or I get into a car, we immediately start to notice all sorts of little details, like the number of blank switches, and the size of the steering wheel, and the placement of the climate controls, and the font readability, and the sunroof opening size, and blah blah blah tiny nitpicky car enthusiast things.
When my girlfriend gets into a car, do you know what she does? She looks for the heated seat button. Then she just sits there.
Here’s the thing: most people don’t really care that the infotainment system looks like an iPad mounted with Krazy Glue. For most people, they see the infotainment system, and they see the positioning, and they see the screen, and they think: COOL!!! A SCREEN!!! And then they spend a lot of time trying to see what it can do, such as a) play music, and b) play music louder.
The simple truth, as much as car enthusiasts don’t like to hear it, is that most people don’t care about stuff the same way we do. For example: a guy recently came to me asking about a midsize sedan. So I told him to buy one of the two best midsize sedans on the market: the Mazda6, or the Ford Fusion. The Mazda6. Or the Ford Fusion. I wrote it on a piece of paper for him. Months later, I ran into him in the grocery story. What did he buy? A Toyota Camry. What happened to the Mazda6 and the Ford Fusion? Oh, my dad has had a couple Camrys, and he really liked them.
But you can’t take offense to this, because he isn’t a car person. You just have to go about your day, knowing that you know a little better than he does. Also, I blocked him from my phone.
And it’s the same way with the dash-mounted iPad screen. Yes, sure, you may hate it, or I may hate it. But I promise they ran sixty million focus groups and discovered that people don’t really care where they put the screen, as long as it a) responds quickly to their commands, and b) has a cool startup graphic with the automaker logo. They would also prefer if it didn’t poop on their lawn.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn’t work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.