Like most people, I have a soft spot for an old dashboard filled with big, analog gauges. It’s a satisfying thing to watch a long needle sweep and dance along the arc of a gauge. I love it. It’s partially because of this love that I say this: it’s time to let analog gauges die.
By “analog gauges” I don’t really mean physical, mechanical gauges. Those will always have their place in certain kinds of cars. I mean analog gauges that are displayed on full-color LCD dot-matrix screens.
Almost every modern car now includes at least one full-color LCD on the dash. It’s not even just high-end cars; many entry-level cars also have at least a small color LCD screen in the gauge cluster, often flanked by a pair of physical gauges. Most high-end cars now use full-size LCD screens in place of the traditional gauge cluster, and almost all of them use those screens—screens that are capable of displaying literally anything—to display digital re-creations of (usually round) physical gauges.
Even Tesla does it. Here, look:
Some dashboards go even further, and have actual round plastic bezels to mimic the look of mechanical gauges. It was this detail that really started me thinking about this, specifically when I had a Lexus IS-F Sport. It not only has a physical round bezel, it has a moving physical, round bezel:
When I first saw this in action, I thought “oh, hey, cool.” And then I started thinking about it a little more, and had the unfamiliar realization that maybe, just maybe, I’m not an idiot, and this sort of dashboard drama is pandering and, well, stupid.
Plus, that round bezel hardly uses the available space well, and as a result, I found almost every configuration of that instrument cluster cluttered and hard to read. Why are we still doing this?
I mean, I know mostly why, and I even know the big-ass word for it: skeuomorphism. Now, I don’t think all skeuomorphism is bad, and I know there’s times when, to make things understandable or for stylistic reasons, we may choose to have virtual things look like familiar physical things. That’s fine. But when it comes to car dashboards, it’s time to move on. It’s become the equivalent of the fake molded-in stitching on a Chevette’s dashboard.
I suspect some of the resistance to give up the familiar, round instrument look is that once, in that magical era of Reaganomics and Pac-Mania, carmakers were aggressively using new display technology to re-think the instrument cluster.
Digital dashes became popular in the 1980s, briefly, and while they were exciting at first, technological limitations caused them to flare out pretty fast. Most digital dashboards of the ‘80s used LED or VFD displays (very rarely CRTs, too), and while these had a certain techy appeal, they weren’t very flexible in what they could display.
The basic technology was like having a panel of shaped lights that could be illuminated at will — nothing could really be moved, reposition, or changed, beyond what could be faked with a sequential series of lights. While clever, they didn’t really improve on the analog experience, and many found them harder to read.
But we’re in a very different place today. A computer-driven full-color LCD screen is like your laptop’s screen. You can display, move, animate, re-order, whatever. It’s incredibly flexible, and the resolution (and image quality) is extremely high. This isn’t the same shit you had in a 1986 Chrysler New Yorker, and there’s no reason we have to remain afraid to use this display technology to its full potential.
If we free ourselves from the tyranny of the analog gauge, we can make dashboards that show, at a quick glance, everything we need to know, simply, cleanly, and attractively. We don’t have to be limited by the old physical rules of lights and needles. Dashboard displays can be customized at will, and tailored to the way you drive. With nothing but software.
I took a quick pass at what an LCD screen-based instrument cluster could look like, free of all the silly urges to pretend it’s a mechanical thing. Here’s the basics of what I came up with:
Now, I know a common criticism of digital dashboards was that analog gauges gave you a better feel, via the needle’s speed of motion and range of motion, of things like acceleration. There’s no reason a digital dash can’t do that.
Take the main instrument here, the speedo. I have the most crucial bit of info, the number, big and central. Behind that, that grey horizontal line shows where that speed is on the overall “gauge,” and moves up and down with the speed. There’s also a blue line tagged with the speed limit of the road you’re on (via GPS data, many nav systems already provide this information) so you can see, easily, how much faster you’re going than the speed limit, if you care.
This setup gives everything an analog gauge does—how quickly or slowly the speed is changing, the overall range of speed of the car, the current speed itself, and provides, right there, a handy marker to help you keep to the speed limit.
The gas gauge doesn’t need hash marks. You see how full the tank is by the bright blue area, and right below the upper white line of the fuel level is the range you can go with that much gas.
Here’s a shot showing some common indicator lights in this context, turn signals, hazards, door and trunk open, high beams:
There’s no reason to have tiny turn arrows that you can’t really see and forget are on and look like some old man tooling down the road with a blinker on — with an LCD, make that arrow as big as you want. It’s never on for that long, you can make it transparent to see information through it, so why not?
With an LCD instrument panel, you can display any Check Engine Light codes right there on the dash. It’s criminal we don’t do this already, and you can have areas set aside to let you know phone or text messages or whatever.
Navigation and maps can be placed right in the cluster so you won’t need to keep looking at the center console screen or your phone, and many cars do this already.
This is just one idea I had. Of course, the font could be different, the color scheme, the layout, everything. Even without the crutch of fake analog gauges, carmakers would have plenty of opportunity to brand a shamelessly digital dash with their own corporate fonts and colors and logos and textures and whatever.
I also want to mention here, partially in response to some of the comments I’ve been getting (which have shown that people really, really care about this, which makes me very happy, whether they agree or not) that nothing I’m talking about means you can’t have round gauge-like displays or instruments that don’t suggest the best parts of analog gauges. I’m just saying we don’t need to slavishly pretend to have physical gauges anymore.
Just to show what I mean, I listened to your comments and made this other quick mockup. This one is based on common things I saw in the comments — the desire for a an arcing, sweeping gauge that suggests rate of change and overall scope of something like speed, a take on the tach that includes an engine power curve, a very simplified, quick-glance friendly set of basic engine monitoring gauges (here, if it’s a green circle, you’re good — if it’s yellow or red, there’s an issue, which is described in detail to the right), and an overall simplified look.
It’s still not skeuomorphic, but it does pull from analog design a bit. The point is an LCD is a clean slate on which we can try whatever we want — as long as we’re willing to stop trying to re-create physical gauges.
As far as the idea goes that people can’t read or process numbers as quickly, I’m just not sure. Reading two-digit numbers seems about instantaneous to me, and people who drive very very fast seem to manage to read much crappier numbers and displays than what I’m suggesting:
The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it seems that no company is really pushing non-fake-analog instrument clusters. I mean, I suspect that somewhere they exist, maybe buried among layers of options in some cars, but so far nobody is really taking a clean-sheet approach to instrument cluster design.
It’s time. Smash those fake old clock-faces and try something new.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.