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The Basics of Automotive Design
3 min read
By Benjamin Parker

Canoo and In-car User Experience

User experience design for dashboards, gauges, and digital screens in cars has always lagged behind the rest of the digital world. We’ve become accustomed to simplicity when it comes to digital interactions, so why have car dashboards become so overcomplicated, and convoluted? 

I’ve posted in the past about my 31-year-old Nissan project car, the Nissan Pao. One thing that I love about it is the speedometer. It’s this simple little gauge that has three dials, one for speed, one for temp, and one for fuel. There are a few indicators for lights, but that’s it. It’s awesome, the Pao wasn’t or isn’t the only car to have a singular gauge housing for all of its dials. Old Fiats are similar, the Mini Cooper still has one big round gauge. The difference though is the simplicity, with the Pao, you only get the information you need nothing else. 

The dashboard of my 1989 Nissan Pao is strikingly simple and doesn't waste time with unnecessary dials or gauges.

A Brief History of Car Dashboards

Car dashboards have existed in some form for as long as cars have been around. They initially acted as a way to keep dust off your legs. As airplanes became more commonplace in the 1930s, car designers began taking cues from airplanes. The influence is noticeable both on the exterior and interior of cars of the time. In an airplane, a pilot uses the gauge cluster to monitor all of the instruments critical to the flight of the plane. Car designers used these gauge clusters as a reference in their designs of automobiles. 

As technology improved and cars gained more features more dials, buttons, and eventually screens appeared on the dashboard. This was a decision based on one part function, two parts marketing. Marketers understood that if they added a feature to a car it should be represented on the dashboard. So the more high-tech or fancy your car was the more buttons it had.

Why More Buttons Aren't Better

Knight Rider's famous KITT dashboard that admittedly looks pretty sick, but could you imagine trying to find the button to turn on the AC?

I won’t belabor the well-known success of the iPod or iPhone at their release, but I will mention that their success came because of an offering of simplicity. There were other solutions on the market for both phones, and media players. People scoffed when they heard that iPhone didn’t have a keyboard, how could you use it? Conventional car dashboard design will suffer the same fate as the Blackberry. Let’s remove the metaphorical keyboard. 

People think that more is better when in most cases it is in fact not. Let’s take for instance the Tachometer, you use the Tachometer to measure the RPMs of a car. In a manual car, drivers use the Tachometer to decide when to shift gears. An Edmunds report shows that in 2019, 80% of cars sold are only offered with an automatic transmission. So why do we still have Tachometers? It’s not critical for the information for the driver, nor does the average driver understand what it’s representing. Out of curiosity I called a few of my friends to see if they could answer a few basic questions about RPMs here were some of the questions and responses:

Question: What does RPM stand for?

Answers: Rate Per Minute, Rotations Per Minute, Range Rovers Per Minute, 

Correct Answer: Revolutions Per Minute (about 7/10 people got this one) 

Question: What is actually revolving?

Answers: The wheels, the tires, the axle, the engine, the pistons

Correct Answer: The crankshaft 

Question: What (specifically) does your temp gauge measure?

Answers: I don’t know, the engine, the oil, the oil pan, the radiator

Correct Answer: The coolant

So, for one, most people may not understand what RPMs or what their temp gauge actually measures, and secondly, they don’t need to! That information isn’t necessary for modern drivers today. Cars have come a long way, their lifetime maintenance costs are going down steeply. As well as fewer people are doing their own maintenance on their cars so they may not need all the diagnostic tools and information offered on modern car dashboards. Even mechanics don’t need them, they use an OBD2 reader that plugs directly into the car to diagnose issues.

Infotainment Is a Nightmare

How many features of your car infotainment system do you use? I’m willing to bet you could count them on one hand. How many features does your car infotainment system have? I’m willing to bet you’ll need a few hands to count them. Further, I’m willing to bet that the first time you used it it didn’t feel like second nature. There’s a real problem with the design of these things. 

Hope on the Horizon

Canoo, the Los Angeles based electric vehicle startup, is pioneering a new way of infotainment. They’ve stripped back everything that isn’t necessary. They’ve built the car based on the user rather than a previous model of car. The whole experience is centered around bringing your digital life into the car, so your phone is essentially the hub of information, it’s the only screen in the front besides this cool LED readout on the front of the car.

The Future Driver

In the future, people will drive less and less, they’ll be passengers more and more. So cars will begin to be more about entertainment than driving experience. This is exactly why Sony is making a car, it’s why Google is, and why Apple is joining the game. So we’ll begin to see a new wave of design for cars. The hope is that the experience maintains some familiarity, but is refined, simplified, and digital.

Ben Parker
Ben is the founder of and lead writer at Voltage. A multidisciplinary designer with a passion for automobiles
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