The cars we loved.

Screen Dreams: Automotive Infotainment Systems Part 1

2012-2014 Ford Focus My Ford Touch system

2012-2014 Ford Focus My Ford Touch system

While fumbling with the infotainment features on my Focus, I began to wonder about the long-term sustainability of my car’s primary driver distraction. As an early adopter, my experience with consumer electronics tells me that obsolesce is the biggest price to pay for taking the plunge first. In my experience, modern gadgets have been built for the short-term as if they were disposable. This all makes me wonder how fancy screens will hold up in the harsh environment of a car over time.

Disposable Technology?

As car entertainment options have become more like phones we only have to go back a few years to imagine how they might fare in the long-term. Remember the tiny screened, yet expensive sat nav systems of the late ’90s installed in cars like the Acura Legend and the E38 BMW 7 Series?  Those systems look hopelessly dated now with their pixellated fonts and graphics. Worse, their poor viewing angles and limited resolution could be compounded with dropped pixels and fading brightness. Hats off to BMW for trying to recreate the look of helvetica on screen, although using their system required your full attention.

Early BMW 7 Series (E36) system

Early BMW 7 Series (E38) system

Will today’s systems fare as well over time? It’s easy to imagine the same fate for my car’s fancy screen in a decade or less. While the quality of cars has improved to the point that almost no crap is sold in the US market, the advent of the connected car is still new hit or miss territory, despite years of false starts. Infotainment tech is still evolving with best practices, but at the expense of brave early adopters.

The faster rate of evolution of the personal computer/phone has surpassed the rate in which mechanical advancements occur in cars. This speed up evolution has allowed even entry-level Kias to offer entertainment technology beyond what was available in a Mercedes S Class from 15 years ago.

Screen Dreams

This rapid advancement has spawned an ill-conceived euphoria in some circles. Some used design to corrall the screen, while others let technology have its way. At one point some manufactures got carried away with screens, thinking that they could replace traditional knobs and buttons to create a kind of Zen beauty. The holy grail of this thinking can be seen in the Tesla Model S. Its primary display is made up of one) 17 inch ips touchscreen that display all of the cars HVAC, entertainment and navigation functions. While this is an extreme example, some automakers are following suit in the trend to replace as many physical controls with screen based ones. This is a big mistake.

2015 Tesla Model S dash

2015 Tesla Model S dash

It’s a minor quibble to cry about how ugly many of today’s dashboards are due to concessions made for a 7 or 8 in screen flopped right in the middle of otherwise perfect control stack. There are examples of it done well and the best practices seem to be spreading through the industry. Aesthetics aside, the real problem comes with fragmentation due to multiple competing standards.

To be continued…


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