Digital dashboard: Why your car’s next instrument panel will be one big LCD
LCD instrument panels are coming, trickling down from a handful of expensive cars today to affordable cars. You need an LCD display in front of you to process all the information you’re getting from the car and connected devices. Any car instrument panel tells you how fast you’re going and how much fuel remains. When you also want to see navigation instructions, song info, hybrid battery efficiency, and the name of an incoming caller, it’s time for a big-screen LCD instrument panel. They’re on a dozen premium car models today. Affordable cars are getting hybrid displays in the instrument panel: The speedometer, tachometer, and fuel gauge are traditional mechanical devices; inset among them or in a bottom strip is an LCD display that can show all the other information.
The car instrument panel is following the lead of the center stack in going to LCDs. The instrument cluster or instrument panel is what’s on the far side of the steering wheel. The center stack is where the radio/head unit and climate control knobs live. Within five years (by 2017), nearly two thirds of cars sold in North America will have a center stack with a display radio, or head unit with an LCD of at least 4.5 inches rather than a dumb, one- or two-line text display, according to IHS Automotive, a Minnesota consulting group. Try scrolling a thousand-song smartphone list on a text display for quick proof of why you want an LCD display. As for the instrument panel, 85% of cars will have at least a partial LCD and more than 10% will be full LCDs. “Infotainment is the main driver for most display radios,” says Mark Boyadjis, an IHS senior analyst. “Safety is the main driver for LCD displays in the instrument cluster or small displays in the head unit.” The US is requiring all cars built by September 2014 to have a rear camera and display in the cockpit. An LCD backup (reversing) camera display embedded in the inside mirror is acceptable, too, though they’re small and can be affected by sunlight.
The industry hasn’t yet settled on a term for an instrument panel that uses an LCD or brighter OLED, so you’ll hear digital dashboard, virtual instrument cluster, reconfigurable instrument cluster, glass cockpit (borrowed from the aviation industry), and digital instrument cluster display (ICD) used to describe the instrument panel of the near future. Information presented in the instrument panel is easier to see at a glance because the driver just looks down, not over and down as with center stack displays. A head-up display is even better, but the cost is around $1,000 and some drivers find them distracting even when they show a pared-down subset of info (speed, cruise-control speed, next turn).
The full monty: 12-inch, all-glass instrument panel
Full digital ICDs have been on a handful of cars for 3-4 years. Jaguar and Land Rover were early pioneers in full digital ICDs with the Jaguar XJ and Land Rover’s Range Rover (pictured above). Both use 12.3-inch LCD panels.
At the very least, a full digital instrument panel usually lets the driver switch between a digital and analog speedometer, or even have the digital readout set inside the analog speedometer gauge. Switching from miles to kilometers is a snap when you drive in Canada or Mexico. It could allow the over-40 driver to increase the font size of information. For old farts who maybe shouldn’t be driving at all, the text could be really big. For the forty-something driver who needs reading glasses and isn’t wearing them, or who has sunglasses ground only for distance vision, larger fonts would make make the make the cockpit information more legible. So far, automakers haven’t rushed to implement sizable fonts, even though they talk a good game about being sensitive to the boomer population.
Cadillac XTS: Move apps from center stack to instrument panel
The most recent car to make a splash with a full LCD instrument cluster is the full-size Cadillac XTS (pictured at the top of the story), announced in the spring, and followed by the compact Cadillac ATS sport sedan, with a partial digital ICD. It, too, has a 12.3-inch, 1280×480 panel.
The Cadillac XTS display is highly but not infinitely configurable. First, you can set four themes for the instrument anel display, called Simple, Enhanced, Balanced (photo), and Performance, with less or more information. Then you can tinker with the display elements. The 3-inch center of the speedometer (middle gauge) can be a digital speed readout or a moving map. This is part of the Cadillac User Experience (CUE) infotainment package that also includes an 8-inch capacitive touch center stack LCD. The XTS driver can swipe or flick windows of information from the center stack over to the instrument panel LCD.
But you can’t make the map any bigger in the instrument panel or move it to the seemingly underused gauge on the right. Boy racers believe the tachometer (left gauge) redline should point straight up in a properly sporting car run at the track, but that is something you can’t do, a Cadillac marketing manager said with a bit more NFW emphasis than I thought the question called for. It goes without saying that you can’t download an instrument panel template and roll your own interface. Yet. Hackers, take your marks…
Partially customizable LCDs
Some automakers started their trek to the glass cockpit with partial digital ICDs such as this 2010 BMW 7 Series. The small and large gauges on top are mechanical and that trademark look hasn’t changed much since the seventies. The strip at the bottom is a wide LCD that you can customize a bit by deciding what elements you’d like to see. BMW has since expanded to a full digital ICD, 12 inches across, for the 7 Series and 5 Series. The Cadillac ATS, a compact sports sedan, also has a partial digital ICD.
The eco-friendly partial LCD instrument panel
If you build a hybrid, the owner gets, free of charge, all manner of positive reinforcement telling you what great job you’re doing. Ford calls this attaboy LCD SmartGauge, a pair of 4.5-inch LCDs flanking the speedometer. If you’re a conservative driver, you collect green leaves, as on the Ford Fusion Hybrid (pictured above). The driver can customize what the gauges show, including a small navigation screen, phone info, infotainment (artist, track, album), or efficiency on the right. The left-side information can be made more or less complex as well. Ford offers the SmartGauge on a wide line of cars, not just hybrids, that have the MyFord Touch and Ford Sync infotainment system.
Small MID adds information at low cost
A multi-information display (MID) has been in the center of car instrument panels for years and has been upgraded from a text-only display, good for showing the outside temperature or miles to empty, to a small color LCD that can show navigation arrows, MP3 album art, or an icon of the car with information such the four tires’ pressures. The Chevrolet Malibu Eco (above) is typical of the current genre of smallish LCDs that provide a lot of information for just a few dollars of manufacturing cost.
The future: LCD instrument panels, two center stack LCDs
Can you have too much of a good thing? Concept cars and soon production cars may have high and low LCD displays in the center stack with dual 7- or 8-inch displays. While some higher-end cars have 10-inch displays, IHS’ Boyadjis says prices are falling most for 8-inch LCDs. A higher panel is better for quickly seeing information. Low is better for touching and swiping with your finger. The Infiniti LE concept car incorporates two center stack panels in addition to to a full digital instrument panel.