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The History, Over-Complication, and Future of the Automobile Dashboard

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Mechanics
Wordcount: 5217 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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UPDATED—3 October 2019. Maximum of 250 words and should answer: why would someone want to read your paper? What problem does it address? In what domain? What key points will the reader take away? How is your contribution unique and innovative?

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Automobile interfaces; automobile dashboard design;

a brief history of the automobile

The idea of a self-propelled automobile dates all the way back to the 15th century. During this time, there were claims of double-masted wind carriages in the Netherlands that traveled up to twenty miles per hour with twenty-eight passengers aboard, marking it the first recorded idea of using wind as a propeller. There are records that indicate Leonardo da Vinci himself considered the idea of a self-propelled vehicle, as did another man known as Robert Valturio, but no actions were taken to turn these ideas into realities.

These different concepts of self-propelled vehicles continued to arise throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, with ideas such as clockwork engines, air engines – which introduced the first metal pistons, cylinders, and connecting rods, the basic components of modern-day car engines – vacuum engines, and steam engines.

By the start of the 20th century, gasoline and electrical engines had been introduced and popularized in the automobile industry, making 38 percent of American automobiles powered by electricity, 22 percent by gasoline and the remaining 40 percent still being powered by steam.

Steam Powered Automobiles

Steam engines were the first version of the automobile to popularize due to Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, a Frenchman whom many historians credit as the first true inventor of the automobile. His first vehicle was a large, heavy, steam powered tricycle created in 1769. This vehicle set the foundation for the automobile as we know it today, as it was continuously used and improved upon well into the 1920s. In fact, the first commercially successful American-made automobile known as the Locomobile, was solely based off Cugnot’s original version.


Figure 1. A 1769 version of Cugnot’s three-wheeled, steam-driven vehicle, on display at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. Image: (Foster & Cromer, 2018)

Electrically Powered Automobiles

Automakers began shifting to electrically powered engines upon the invention of the storage battery in 1859, it was now possible to implement these to power the engine of a car. At first, the adoption of this invention was extremely slow due to the lack of a battery-charging infrastructure, but by 1912, the industry overcame this hurdle, causing many companies to join the industry and resulting in over 33,000 cars on the road in the US.

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This type of engine posed many benefits to the user, including its instant self-start, silent operation, and minimal maintenance. The biggest interface difference from the earlier, steam-powered engines, was the introduction of the electric self-starter, eliminating the use of a hand crank to start up the engine. This was a huge step in the interface of an automobile because women were now able to start a car themselves, not needing the muscle it takes to crank up a steam engine.

Unfortunately, by the 1920s, the electrical engine had died off due to its limited functionality including its low speed, short battery life, and lengthy time required to recharge.

Gasoline Powered Automobiles

Around the same time that automakers began their shift towards electrically powered engines, gasoline powered automobiles were also under consideration. In 1862, Alphonse Beau de Rochas, a French engineer, invented the four-stroke principle which modern automobile engines still use today. de Rochas’s four-stroke principal was then implemented to an engine design in 1876 by German engineer, Nikolaus August Otto, and later, a different Frenchman by the name of Etienne Lenoir created the first gasoline engine based on Otto’s original engine design. Around the same time, another man by the name of Siegried Marcus, had successfully designed a car using the idea of an internal-combustion engine by igniting a mix of gasoline and air using a stream of sparks.

Gottlieb Daimler, of whom the current, giant automaker, Daimler AG is named for, served as a technical director at Otto’s gasoline engine firm in 1872. He soon realized the potential of the internal combustion engine, something him and Otto did not agree upon, and set off on his own to design an air-cooled, one-cylinder engine, known as the first high-speed internal-combustion engine. This invention ultimately led to the 1889 car, which was the first full automobile, different from the carriages with self-propellers that had been used up until then, having the engine in the rear, its wheels driven by a belt, four different speeds, and a tiller for steering.

This version of the 4-wheel drive, gasoline engine automobile was iterated on for many years, accessible only to those with money, until Henry Ford’s invention of the Model T in 1908 turned the automobile into a necessity used by the masses, changing the face of the automobile industry forever. Ford achieved this by making his cars cheap, versatile, and easy to maintain for all users.

Technical Advancements Leading to the Dashboard

Giving a brief history of the automobile industry leading up to the need of a dashboard display, Riechers (2016) explains in his article that with the introduction of Ford’s Model T came many technical advancements. Up until the 1920s, most cars were simple, open models with minimal protection from the outdoors, but by 1920, the closed car had become the go-to model for most common folk. Four-wheel brakes, hydraulics, independent front suspensions, and transmissions with synchronized gears were all introduced during this time period, leading to a much simpler driving experience. Additionally, the introduction of accessories such as heaters and radios worked to make the driving experience more enjoyable.

After a major lull in production and automobile advancement during the World Wars and the Great Depression, the 1950s brought a plethora of advancements to the automobile. Due to the rising popularity in motor racing, car manufacturers began to use their events to showcase their new designs, causing the masses to now crave performance-based vehicles. This increased the demand for v8 engines and automatic transmissions, making it unnecessary for the driver to shift gears and leading to one of the most notable changes in the automobile interface to date, the shift from manual shifting to automatic shifting. This automation, along with the introduction of a compact system by Pontiac in 1954, that placed all installation capabilities in the engine compartment found under the front hood of the car, led to the ultimate need of a dashboard.

A new need leads to the use of the dashboard

Earlier versions of the automobile such as Ford’s Model T had all manual capabilities, including those such as the measuring of gas left in the tank, which originally used a wooden ruler. As more automotive features were introduced to the design of an automobile, it created a new need for the user to be aware of things such as their speed, oil pressure, and engine temperature. Automobile designers began to display different readouts and gauges on the dashboard of the vehicle, using clear and concise typography that could be read with a quick glance.

The Advancement of the Dashboard

Ford’s 1927 Model A was one of the earliest examples of a dashboard display, having only four readouts controlled by cables and wires and directly hardwired to whatever the readout was measuring.

Figure 2. A 1927 Ford Model A dashboard. Image: (Riechers, 2016)

In 1936, the Cord 810 introduced a completely integrated dashboard with an array of dials in simple black and white with red accents. The top of the dashboard included a symmetrical arrangement of circular gauges including the speedometer, tachometer, oil pressure gauge and a clock. The bottom row featured levers for the choke and several other mechanical functions. The engineers designed this dashboard with two major intentions – for the user to see this information within seconds of sitting in the driver’s seat and most importantly, so the driver could read the gauges while the car was in motion, without becoming too distracted.

Figure 3. A snapshot of a 1936 Cord 810 dashboard. Image: (Riechers, 2016)

Once the American automobile reached mechanical maturity, using the most cutting-edge technologies of the time, the amount of information needed to be displayed to the user on the dash had reached its max, creating the need for innovation and a reconsideration of the dashboard design. This posed a major design opportunity for automakers, which ultimately drove the future of the dashboard design.

Current Dashboard

In the past century, humans have become accustomed to the vast array of features that is presented to us at one time in an automobile. This idea of a busy dashboard dates back to the late 1930s, a time when airplanes were becoming more popular and luxury car companies were drawing their inspiration from these very complex, plane cockpit dashboard designs. These “enhanced” dashboards were intended to showcase the many powers the automobile harbored underneath the hood, placing style above functionality as the core driver in the design of these dashboards. Cars equipped with these over-complicated dashboards soon became a sign of luxury and a desired car feature.

More recently, automakers have begun to create elaborate dashboard screens that support realistic, real-time navigation graphics and other animated features. An early example of this trend is the Audi Virtual Cockpit, first introduced in 2001. This was a multimedia interface considered to be a “state-of-the-art digital-based dashboard” with a 12.3-inch, customizable screen positioned directly in front of the driver. Audi offered an “infotainment mode” that allowed the user to display additional information on the screen such as the navigation system, telephone, Audi connect and media. This multimedia interface also introduced features such as the recognition of multitouch gestures including scrolling and zooming, the rotary controller function using context-sensitive options, and a search option.

Figure 4. The Audi Virtual Cockpit. Image: (Riechers, 2016)

Although technologically advanced, this array of capabilities demands a large amount of restraint from the driver as to not distract themselves with the different controls and displayed information.

Automakers have been continually attempting to improve upon these touch screen interfaces, taking design cues from the tablet computer, while trying to maintain a low level of distraction. Two examples of this, discussed by Quain (2018), is when Ford made the move to a touch screen dashboard, as did Volvo. For years, Ford had been criticized for having a too complex and packed dashboard system. This new touch-screen system introduced new visualizations and interactions to help keep distraction at a minimum. Examples of these features were the use of fewer and larger icons that could be cognitively recognized at a short glance, enlarged touch-sensitive areas so the user’s touch did not have to be as precise, and tablet-like interactions such as pinching to zoom on a map. A bar on the bottom of the screen displayed other functions such as climate control, navigation, and audio.

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Ford did not take the leap to full tablet functionality, preserving some conventional elements such as the knob used for volume adjustments as opposed to the implementation of a touch-sensitive slider to adjust the volume, something Cadillac and Lincoln both implemented and were repeatedly criticized for, saying it contributed to driver distraction. This preservation ideology carried over to several other functions such as scrolling through a list one item at a time, whereas on a tablet, the list would continue to scroll. Don Butler, Ford’s Executive Director for Connected Vehicles and Services, is quoted in Quain (2018) stating that “inertial spinning is not ideal for a vehicle environment” and so was left out of the dashboard design as to minimize the driver getting distracted by scrolling through playlists, say. Ford also stated they were keeping an eye on the voluntary guidelines introduced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2013, which recommends that “any single interaction not take more than two seconds”, a time at which a car can travel 176 feet while going sixty miles per hour.

Similar to Ford, Volvo also introduced a simple, eight button system on a touch screen with safety as its main driver. Thomas Muller, Volvos Vice President of Electrical and Electronic Systems Engineering is also quote by Quain (2018), recognizing the need for other ways of interacting with the dashboard system such as voice control. This particular system allows the user to interact in a natural way, saying things like “I’m cold” to inform the system to turn the heat on.

Problems Automobile Dashboard Designers Face

Riechers (2016) argues that many of these dashboards that have been discussed are constantly infringing on the issue of overcomplexity. Similarly, Boer and Goodrich (2004) explain that driving sometimes demands split second responses, implying that any interface which requires high-levels of cognitive responses are often undesirable because such response are much too slow. This question of what is too distracting on a dashboard display has remained a common design-driving factor due to the safety issues that over-complicated displays and readouts pose. The longer it takes the driver to obtain the necessary information needed from their dashboard, the longer their eyes do not remain on the road, creating a risk to themselves and those around them.

Safety and level of distraction remain the main problems dashboard designers face but are still only two of many issues faced in automobile dashboard design. Digital technology’s advancement is growing at such a fast rate, that the five-year span between the design phase of a car and the time it actually comes off the assembly line means that the technology in a dashboard display can be generations behind the newest smartphone or tablet screens. Riechers (2016) suggests that screen manufacturers and type designers could work in conjunction to perfect the design of the letterforms for use in their specified environment and hierarchy.

Low-fi screens pose another usability issue because typography suffers from low-resolution screens, slightly distorting the characters it displays. This marks the availability of hi-resolution screens in cars as a high-priority in dashboard design.

Another issue related to the typography of the dashboard is the lack of upgradability allowed in a system and the lack of consistent type fonts and sizes, since most center screens and dashboard screens are usually designed by two different teams in different areas of the world. Without a plan to integrate the two areas of the dash, the overall design and typography will ultimately suffer.

This lack of consistency is also identified by Riechers (2016), saying that the dashboard is a “human factors nightmare zone” in the automotive industry. This is mainly due to the inconsistency in location for controls including the windshield wipers, air conditioning, hazard signal, etc. Automakers who continue to try and improve this interface change the placement of these elements, trying to fit as much functionality in a single space as possible.

Riechers (2016) refers to this as an informational disaster, which I believe aptly characterizes the current state of dashboard displays because of the inconsistencies the user faces from one vehicle to the next including the multitude of functionalities, typographies, and information presented to the user.

Specifications Used to Simplify Dashboard Design

When referring to the 1936 Cord 810 dashboard, Riechers explains that the designers used a clear hierarchy of “well-spaced sans serif type, presented in a logical, simple sequence”, designed with the intent for the user to see this information within seconds of sitting in the driver’s seat and most importantly, so the driver could read the gauges while the car was in motion, without becoming too distracted.

Another design element that has stayed prevalent in dashboard designs are analog dials. Because these dials have been used since the 1930s, they may appear outdated at first but in fact, are easier for the user to comprehend. According to human factors specialists, the eye tracks a moving needle or dial and cognitively registers this change better than a digital number that increases or decreases. “Henry Dreyfuss wrote that analog clocks work better than digital ones because a viewer can remember the positioning of the hands, and by mentally comparing them with the previous hand position, can ‘see’ time elapsing”. This concept is aptly applied in most dashboard designs by using a needle that moves past numbers located in fixed positions so that at first glance, the user can see and understand the value it represents. An additional benefit is that users are also able to get accelerator information from this interface by correlating moving numbers with the pressure applied to the gas pedal to speed up or slow down. This accelerator information cannot be conveyed using just numbers scaling up and down due to the “sameness” some numbers exude such as 0, 6, and 8, making it harder for the human brain to decipher a difference at first glance.

Although analog dials are used consistently from vehicle to vehicle, their designs still vary. A variance in design of these gauges is the placement of the numbers and how the indicators for each number are styled. Designers have to ask themselves many questions during the design process such as “Does each number correspond to a round dot or a vertical line? Do the numbers fall inside or outside the circular outline? Do the numbers flip over or change their orientation in spots where they would other wise fall upside down on the arc?”. These design decisions may seem to just be aesthetics, but actually have an affect on response time and how well the dashboard is able to quickly convey information to the driver. Riechers (2016) states that, “In this case, good typographic choices literally can be a matter of life an death.”

Applying user centered design to the automobile interface

Murray (2011) details the methods Cadillac and General Motors used to design Cadillac’s New User Experience (CUE), which is a center stack similar to a smartphone found in Cadillac’s XTS and ATS 2012 sedans, combining entertainment and information from up to ten connected Bluetooth devices, USBs, an dMP3 players.

A team of forty General Motors engineers began by spending hundreds of hours observing all types of users as they drove their automobiles. What they found was slightly disturbing, including users struggling with their navigation and radio systems, pushing repeatedly on the touch display to get a response, and rifling through menus to find their intended screen. This was a drastically different approach from how most automakers approach their redesigns, by continually examining the trends of their competitors products and choosing which features they like best to create their “new” concept. Cadillac instead, conducted four extensive studies to understand the customer’s needs and how they interface with their vehicles, to help inform the functionalities and technologies needed to support those needs and interactions.

The engineers paid special attention to the different pieces of technology and gadgets the user brought into their cars with them. These gadgets included cellphones, navigation systems, and iPods. Another focus of their observations was to view how the user learned about their vehicle and its vast array of functions. They did this by observing the “unboxing experience” of their cars, which is the process and how a user interacts with their new vehicle to gain knowledge on it. This research found that there were many different types of unboxing experiences and made it a priority to make their new system easy-to-learn for all these different possibilities.

A major find during these observations was the idea of user familiarity, meaning users wanted their in-care experience to resemble a product that they are already familiar with, getting rid of the need for them to learn something completely new. With this finding in mind, the designers and engineers on this project decided to replicate the experience of touch screens, enabling all gestures that users have become so widely accustomed to using on smart phones including tapping, flicking, swiping, and pinching.

Two additional functions that were implemented were haptic feedback and proximity sensors. The haptic feedback enabled users to keep their eyes on the road when reaching to touch the screen. The mechanical pulse the user receives upon touching the screen would alert them that their touch has been received and they are connected to the system. The implementation of proximity sensors that brought the touchscreen to life when the user’s hand drew within a few inches of it was meant to add to the ease-of-use and “magical” feel.

Lastly, the engineers made a conscious decision to bring the button count down to four buttons in comparison to the traditional thirteen to seventeen buttons usually used on these center dashes. Even with a significantly less number of buttons, Cadillac managed to maintain all the same, necessary functions.

Using Persuasive Design in Dashboard Design

A common theme in many modern user experiences is the presence of what Gray et al. (2018) refers to as “persuasive design”. This tactic is used to elicit an action from the user that they wouldn’t normally do in a traditional experience. An experiment conducted by Kumar & Kim (2005) uses persuasive design in a dashboard display with the goal of discouraging speeding by appealing to the driver’s motivation to drive safely.

Before the experiment, the authors explored many design options to help achieve the desired behavioral change and ended up settling on a dynamic speedometer that uses a visualization like a tachometer which distinguishes the regions of the speedometer that are higher than the current speed limit. The dashboard visualization had to be able to change in real-time, updating the displayed speed limit to reflect the posted speed limit in the driver’s current area. This takes away the user task of waiting/searching for a speed limit sign.

The newly designed dashboard also had the ability to provide visual cues when the user exceeds a certain threshold over the speed limit, such as adding a glow to the needle, changing the color or luminosity of the region of the speedometer, or changing the background of the dial. Audio cues could also be used, such as beeps of varying frequencies and amplitude.

Kumar & Kim (2005) tested this design, having 25 subjects test the redesigned speedometer along with a car with a conventional speedometer. They observed the speeding habits of all subjects in both scenarios, doing this twice with the only difference being that the user was unaware of the speedometer’s different functionalities the first time, and informed for the second run. Their results were that thirty-six percent of the subjects understood the functionality of the speedometer without an explanation and yet, of the sixty-four percent who did not understand the functionality of the dynamic speedometer, they still tended to drive slightly slower when using the dynamic speedometer in comparison to the conventional speedometer.

Once the subjects were aware of the function of the dynamic speedometer, it was found that this speedometer assisted drivers in reducing unintentional speeding. The authors claim that the maximum speed recorded for subjects was significantly lower than that of the conventional speedometer and concluded that the dynamic speedometer influenced subjects to drive slower.

The study used a small and narrowly defined group of subjects, as they were all university students, which does not properly represent the entire user group of an automobile dashboard, deeming these statistics insignificant. Although the statistics are not significant, the approach of using specially designed interfaces to encourage specific behavior to achieve safety goals is worth mentioning in a conversation concerning the future interfaces of an automobile.

Future Automobile and dashboard Opportunities

With the expected increase of autonomous driving in the coming years, there arises new opportunities for the car to serve as an infotainment platform. Riener, Boll, & Kun (2016) discuss some core challenges that could arise when designing these assistance system interfaces such as the transformation of vehicles into places of productivity and play. With the introduction of automated driving, some or nearly all the time spent in a car, the driver will be able to turn their attention to non-driving activities, allowing UI designers to explore a range of possible interactions that were not possible with manually driven vehicles due to the level of distraction involved. This introduces new constraints, much different from the current constraint of minimizing distractions of the driver, such as the area available for interaction, the motion of the vehicle, and its computational power.

Another potential challenge interface designers could face is the re-engagement of drivers in a semi-automated driving environment back to the driving task. This opportunity for new secondary tasks accessible to the driver begs the question of how to bring the users attention back to their portion of the driving task. If the secondary task takes away too much attention from the driver, it will be a challenge to safely and timely return the users attention back to the primary task at hand. Since reactions in driving situations are time critical, there will be much work that needs to be done on UI design in order to limit the challenge or re-engagement.

A third potential challenge that designers could face is in the design of collaborative driving in which cars collectively work together on the road. The conversations continue to revolve around the need for interfaces and applications that make driving safe while enabling communication, work and play in human-operated vehicles. The primary challenge here is the many years it will take to fully implement, leaving many years in between with mixed scenarios in which vehicles with no, semi, and full automation will have to coexist and cooperate in daily traffic. This creates a UI opportunity in the design of autonomous cars to not only have to communicate with the driver of the autonomous car, but to also somehow keep drivers of non-autonomous cars in the loop as well.

Lastly, the biggest challenge to face, that we consistently see in all areas of technology, is that of trust. It will take a lot of research, tests, and practice to create a system that gains the trust of the general population. With cars able to travel at high speeds, the trust in autonomous cars has to be at an all-time high, otherwise humans will never fully adopt this concept.



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  2. Boer, E. R., & Goodrich, M. A. (2004, April 24-29). Interfaces, Autonomy, & Interactions in Automobile Driving. Retrieved December 8, 2018, from https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=985921.986153 doi:10.1145/985921.986153
  3. Foster, C. G., & Cromer, O. C. (2018, January 18). Automobile. Retrieved December 8, 2018, from https://www.britannica.com/technology/automobile/History-of-the-automobile
  4. Gray, C. M., Kou, Y., Battles, B., Hoggatt, J., and Toombs, A. L. (2018). The dark (patterns) side of ux design. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, CHI ’18, pages534:1–534:14, New York, NY, USA. ACM [paper-534.pdf]
  5. Kumar, M., & Kim, T. (2005). Dynamic speedometer. CHI 05 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems – CHI 05. doi:10.1145/1056808.1056969
  6. Murray, C. J. (2011, December). Cadillac’s Dashboard Design Lesson. Design News, 46-48. Retrieved December 8, 2018, from http://pages.nxtbook.com/nxtbooks/ubm/designnews_201112/offline/ubm_designnews_201112.pdf
  7. Quain, J. R. (2018, January 10). Carmakers Take a Hint From Tablets. Retrieved December 8, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/02/automobiles/to-tame-dashboard-chaos-carmakers-take-a-hint-from-tablets.html
  8. Riechers, A. (2016, November 14). The Typography & Design of Vehicle Dashboards. Retrieved December 8, 2018, from https://www.printmag.com/typography/driven-distraction-dashboard-design-typography/
  9. Riener, A., Boll, S., & Kun, A. L. (Eds.). (2016). Automotive User Interfaces in the Age of Automation. Retrieved from http://drops.dagstuhl.de/opus/volltexte/2016/6758/pdf/dagrep_v006_i006_p111_s16262.pdf


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