A Digital Paradise by the Dashboard Light

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DETROIT -- The driver of the first Corvette, in 1953, was welcomed by a lovely fan of numbers -- a sweeping, eye-catching speedometer denominated in 10-mile-per-hour intervals up to 160. The display offered a stark representation of speed.

By contrast, the instrument panel of the next-generation Corvette, which made its public debut here last week at the North American International Auto Show, offers a tachometer formed of seven big numerals surrounding a translucent, ghostly image of the car -- suggesting the 3-D cyberspace world of "Tron." This tachometer emphasizes the 450 horsepower pumped out by a new V-8 engine. But that's just one way of looking at what the car is doing.

The dashboard is "completely configurable," said Ryan Vaughan, who designed the new Corvette's interior. Dials have been banished; an eight-inch screen has taken their place.

A car's instruments summarize its personality. Every car has two faces, and each expresses character. One is outside, visible to all the world: the grille and headlights that are the car's public face. The other is more intimate, the instrument panel through which the driver interacts with the machine. The speedos and tachs, the knobs and dials, tell a story, and they convey emotion as well as information.

The amount of information is increasing rapidly as digital technology pervades the car. The automobiles displayed this year at the auto show suggest a quiet revolution: digital is chasing the last vestiges of analog from the dashboard. Mechanical instruments are rare. The dial is dying.

Gorden Wagener, design chief for Mercedes-Benz, is among those predicting a complete shift to virtual instruments. "Honestly, I see hardware dials disappearing -- and I like that," he said, standing next to the new small CLA sedan hidden behind curtains near the Mercedes display. "It's a question of how you do it."

For years, most cars have offered analog speedometers and tachometers even with the fanciest digital displays. Aside from their nod to tradition, analog gauges offer reassurance, like a windup clock or a mechanical wristwatch that keeps running even if a superstorm knocks out power and blocks access to the Internet. But this year, digital readouts of speed and engine performance are trumping analog needles and numbers. Many of the dials that survive are digital replicas of analog instruments.

The tach is especially endangered. Purists may blanch, but as fewer and fewer cars offer manual transmissions, the more redundant the tach seems. In the battle for prime real estate on the dashboard, it may be doomed.

The most basic traditional layout sets an equal-size speedometer and tachometer side by side. But gauges reflect character: in sports cars, the tach looms larger, sometimes literally overshadowing the speedo. The gauge clusters of the new Porsche Cayman and Boxster are dominated by huge circular tachs larger than the speedometers. These speak of a sports car for the autobahn -- with no speed limit, who needs a speedo?

By contrast, Chevrolet has given the smallest car it sells in the United States, the Spark, instruments that it says are modeled on those of a cheap motorcycle: just two basic dials. The goal is to impart a sporty feel to the tiny economy car.

The graphics of the new Corvette's dash are much more sophisticated than the Spark's. Choosing one of various modes -- including Tour, Sport and Track -- produce very different looks.

The big Cadillac XTS sedan also offers a configurable display, from a traditional layout to one that emphasizes the technological. Analog dials have also vanished.

At the other extreme, the retro look of the Fiat 500 is expressed in instruments with numbers like those on a 1950s table radio. The Mini Cooper's podlike gauges are puffy and cartoonish, like something from the "Futurama" cartoon series.

The green credentials of electrics or hybrids are evident in instruments that offer driving guides. Ford's SmartGauge with EcoGuide coaches drivers in the Fusion Hybrid, famously rewarding those who are most efficient with a display of growing leaves and vines. Such nudges, aimed at keeping engine speeds down, suggest that the speedo and tach are not siblings, but rivals. Speed and efficiency battle in our cars, as in our hearts and minds. To meet fuel-efficiency targets, we need to push mileage up and revs down.

If the tach is a relic, what of the volt meter and the oil pressure gauge? Other information is crowding into view: where dials used to be, the driver gets directions to a destination, news alerts or the album cover art of the music that's playing.

The new Corvette offers multiple ways to display information. In Track mode, for instance, a sweeping graphic literally shows the torque band.

The Corvette was one of the first cars with LCDs, in 1984, and with a heads-up display, which projects information onto the windshield. But as time passes, novel interior features can seem dated, like the complex graphic equalizers that rocked audiophiles in cars of the 1970s.

Today's dashboard experiments are likely to quickly grow dated as well. Aaron Betsky, the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, has been shopping for a car. He is dismayed by the state of instrument design, likening much of it to "a teenage boy's idea of high-tech heaven."

"In general, it is amazing how clutter has increased just when we thought everything would become simpler," he said, adding that he wished Jonathan Ive, Apple's chief designer, would try his hand at an instrument panel.

Mr. Wagener of Mercedes also insists on a higher standard of design for digital dashboards. He notes that dials have long served as jewelry in car interiors. "The new S-Class will offer a world where you don't need the real dials," he said. "You will have virtual dials. But they must have the same qualities as real jewelry."

Today's analog dials, like watches, exist more for decoration than function. Mr. Wagener says he thinks the role of "eye candy" will be assumed by air vents. The polished round vents on the CLA, for instance, echo those of the Mercedes 300SL of the mid-1950s and are one of the key themes of the brand's current interior design language. The flow of air -- into a grille, over a fender, through a side vent -- is inherently sexy, in the view of Mr. Wagener. "Any time you have air handling, it is emotional," he said.

Another example was found at the Lincoln display, where the vents inside the MKC evoke the crossover's winged grille -- a clear example of a car's inner face corresponding to its outward face.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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