Automobile Dashboards of the Past, Present, and Future
At Helm we observe design as much as we practice it, and through our work with ACV Auctions and Basil Cars we have gotten more involved with the automotive industry than we could have previously imagined. From that we have become increasingly intrigued by the most important part of the car for the user, the dashboard interface.
Interface: a point where two systems, subjects, organizations, etc., meet and interact.
As cars have gotten more complex throughout the years, interfaces have had to adjust with additional functionality. Going from the original Model T to the Tesla Model X, a lot has changed.
The Invention: 1900s-1940s
From software to hardware it is always interesting to see what design iterations appear in the first few rounds of a revolutionary product.
Ford Model T — 1923
The Model T was first car ever built for the common man. Devised by Henry Ford in 1909, automobile technology was in it’s infancy.
The Model T went a top speed of 35 mph, so the speed gauge was relatively unnecessary and did not come standard. Looking at the dashboard on the 1923 model the only measurement face is that of an ammeter. An ammeter is an instrument that measures current, generally at a point between the battery and the voltage regulator. And interestingly enough, this gauge does not even exist in cars built today.
Maybach Zeppelin DS8 — 1932
Luxury vehicles, like the Maybach above, had better performance than the Model T and explored a larger set of features, which led to an increased cost. In fact, this behemoth weighed 6,600 pounds! It even included double-acting shock absorbers, luxury leather upholstery, and a top speed over 100 mph.
But the key feature of this beast was the addition of a semi-automatic transmission. The engineering team developed a compact gearbox with automated meshing to improve the experience of starting the Maybach.
The gears were engaged by means of shift dogs which were moved with the help of vacuum pressure. The clutch only had to be operated for starting off, stopping and reversing. A preselector would be used to select the desired gear. After selection, the car would change gears once the driver let up on the accelerator.
1932 Maybach DS8 Zeppelin
1932 Maybach DS8 Zeppelin The model designation, Zeppelin, was chosen to express that the twelve-cylinder Maybach…
This was far simpler than the challenging sequence of operations that existed in the previous model.
The Style: 1950s-1980s
The 50s through the 80s were the golden era of artistic dashboard design. This was a time of ostentatious wheels, bright convertibles, and drive-in movies.
Chrysler Imperial — 1955
The 1940’s and 50’s design style involved an exorbitant amount of gauges and dials on dashboards, as reflected in the Imperial. The knobs and aesthetic complexity was a fashion statement at the time. This was due to the romanticism of the World War II bomber cockpits and not necessarily a usability decision. This influence of airplane cockpits on car dashboards can even be seen in cars built in 2015.
Plymouth Fury — 1965
Ford LTD — 1975
Throughout the 60s and 70s we see a distinct transformation of the dashboard to the modern design aesthetic with the automatic transmission becoming mainstream. The importance of the cigarette lighter is demonstrated with it’s hierarchy on the driver’s left hand in full view due to the pervasiveness of smoking in American culture.
Additionally safety features, reliability, and the performance of vehicles became more important due to devastating accidents and the residual litigation. Modern air bags were invented in 1953 and seat belts were required to be outfitted in all vehicles in 1968.
Chevrolet Corvette — 1980
In this daring corvette interior you can see a magnum opus of this era. Dynamic shades of red leather and felt dress the interior. All brought together by an imposing bright plastic steering wheel that looks candy-like and supple to the touch.
The Commoditization: 1990s-Early 2000s
Oldsmobile Delta — 1993
From the sporty to the standard we can see a shift from style to comfort emerge. Air conditioning, cup holders, and speed gauges on the dash emerge as utilitarian priorities like commuting to work and engaging in long road trips become the norm.
This Saturn encapsulates the classic 2000 era car interface with a gear shifter on the lower part of the drivers right hand and a transition from cassette tapes to a cd player. If you look back at the previous dashboards many of the buttons have a wide horizontal orientation. The Saturn’s condensed vertical control panel allows the driver to control every aspect of the car with relative ease.
Another interesting observation of this car is the size of the steering wheel. Despite power steering being implemented in cars since 1951, the small wheel communicates the effortlessness of controlling these modern vehicles. The interior is also highly ergonomic with cup holders and a curved glove compartment optimized for comfort and space maximization.
The Car Computer: Late 2000s-Today
Tesla S Series — 2012
Hard to know where to begin with the Tesla and it’s role in changing the car industry. We have reached the point where technology companies are taking the approach to building smartphones and applying it to cars. In the Tesla we see an entirely digital dashboard with a 17 inch screen. This car has application features and updates just like a smartphone with regular software upgrades. It’s dash has minimal physical buttons, only for the hazard light and some basic controls on the steering wheel.
A major advantage of a digital interface is its adaptability and opportunities for personalization. Also, the flexibility of software means that it is constantly being iterated upon by the Tesla development team. Therefore even older models will have their software and UI up to date, unlike cars with physical dashboards.
Personalization comes into play with the arrangement of the customizable UI. Just like the iPhone interface, the Tesla dashboard allows users to move apps around on the home screen. Whether you use maps, music, or air conditioning the most, the user can define personal importance through prioritized arrangement.
Automobile manufacturers are continuing the trend of adjusting to the market and new opportunities created through technology.
As designers we look to see the difference between what can be done, whether it should be done, and what is being done. Looking at the Tesla touchscreen many argue that they overdid the high-tech interface with the removal of nearly every physical button. Critics decry that they sacrificed tactile feedback to fault, because it is still important for driver focus and safety.
However, looking back you will still see these challenges existed in every era at the onset of innovation in the forms of frivolous knobs, unruly steering, and convoluted music players. The key to the next great car dashboard design will always have to take into account all the successes of the past and augment them with technology of the current day.