Rewriting the Screen Play: Are tablet screens ruining the dashboard?

2016 Chevrolet Volt

2016 Chevrolet Volt

The necessity for technology and connectivity in vehicles today has led automakers and designers down a frustrating path of interior packaging. Buttons and knobs took up real estate for decades on the dash. Then along came the touchscreen, and the buttons and knobs vanished, only to return hastily once complaining began from customers who just wanted to turn on their seat heaters without sorting through 12 screens first.

2015 Mazda3

2015 Mazda3

Technology is changing faster than the vehicles are, and manufacturers are having a difficult time keeping pace. Cassette players are gone, and CD slots and single-pin auxiliary inputs are getting harder to find. And now that just about every manufacturer has switched from the 30-pin plug used for Apple iPhones to USB ports, Apple announced that the entire industry is switching to a USB C port. It’s enough to make a grown engineer cry.

2016 Chevrolet Malibu

2016 Chevrolet Malibu

Finding real estate on a dashboard now is about as difficult as finding real estate in an up-and-coming city. Every inch is scrutinized to make sure no space is wasted. Shift levers are being replaced by rotary knobs and pushbuttons on the dash. And screens are getting bigger and bigger, so we can see them easier and reference information with minimal eye contact so as not to distract from our driving (it does anyway, but we need our navigation systems and other information, don’t we?).

2015 Audi A3

2015 Audi A3

As a matter of fact, screen size competition in the automotive industry is getting close to the cup holder wars from a decade ago. So if you can’t fit everything in the dash, maybe it’s time to consider putting things on the dash. Which brings us to the latest trend in automotive interiors: tablet screens that are tacked on top of the dash.

2014 Tesla Model S

2014 Tesla Model S

While we hear from the marketing folks that this is a good idea because we can keep our eyes high while looking at the information, interior designers must secretly be puking behind the sketchboard in the design studios. These screens may be necessary, but the inability to weave it into a cleanly styled dash is obvious. In this case, function is kicking form’s ass. To prove this, take a look at the photos in this article. Chevy Volt, Mercedes-Benz C-Class, Mazda3, new Chevy Malibu, and Audi A3 are just a few of the manufacturers embracing this trend. Even Tesla gave up fighting and installed a screen larger than some laptops. At least the screen in the Audi A3 is retractable.

2015 Mazda MX-5 Miata

2015 Mazda MX-5 Miata

The manufacturers can’t keep up with the technology industry, but are doing their best to give us as much information in the vehicle while still hoping we concentrate on driving. So many of these functions are blocked when on the road anyway, that unless you have robust voice commands, or remember to program everything before leaving the driveway, you can’t use them. And as time progresses, all vehicles will have some form of Car Play, where the screen just mimics your smartphone, so manufacturers won’t need to worry about navigation systems and information as much as they do now.

The best solution would be to have holograms on the windshield (more involved than the head-up displays now), or just do everything via voice commands. The screens will make more sense when we are fully autonomous, which may only be a few decades away. And at that point, the screens can be 5K LED movie theater size, for all we care. But for now, they don’t do much to add elegance to the interior designs, and, especially for the fixed screens on top of the dash, they will look seriously outdated in next five or so years when we won’t need them at all.

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA

2014 Mercedes-Benz CLA

We hope automotive designers will fight this with the same fervor they protested the Bangle Butt* when it first appeared. Let us know if you like this design, or if you agree that it should vanish from the interior. We hope it’s not just us that thinks it’s a bad idea that needs to go away.