Driven to distraction: Car dashboards
I just leased a new car. Now when I drive to work I feel as if I’m in a spaceship facing so many dials, knobs and buttons that I’ll need a couple of years of NASA training to pilot my craft. It’s actually an Acura (seen above), and Honda has done a pretty decent job of organizing all the many controls into a manageable array, but still, there are a lot of choices. That’s the basic problem with car interiors today: their design is driven by the desire to make technology available. But, of course, they have to do so without distracting you from the real world you’re driving through while listening to Car Talk, making phone calls or getting the climate just right. The rest of the car’s space doesn’t really matter, because you don’t notice it. That means the designers have to get the controls right: they have to be attractive and functional, easy to understand and to use.
Mercedes-Benz E Class
I like the German cars. Their designers are the most rigorous at controlling all the machine madness, organizing them into simple, reductive arrays with strong, horizontal lines that sweep across the front of the dashboard. If you rent a European car, like a Renault or an Alfa Romeo, you get expressive technology: lots of knobs and dials with elaborate casings and sweeps and curves slung across the dashboard. Whenever I rent an American car, I feel as if I just get slabs of controls pasted together in front of me. But they’re getting better, though. The latest Fords have a pretty clean central console. In the soon-to-be-released Chevrolet Volt, the whole dashboard will be a clean expanse of controls reduced to a minimum—and reminds me of one of the latest cell phones.
In the future, all these dials and buttons are supposed to go away, at least as real things. If we can believe the concept cars now on view at auto shows, we are moving towards designs that look like three-dimensional television screens molded into dashboards. This way there will no separate controls at all. At the furthest horizon, companies such as Chrysler are imagining the car cockpit as a cocoon in which information melts and melds together into a limpid bulb surrounding the steering wheel. But even that science-fiction vision of information spreading around me like a virtual cloud doesn’t go far enough for me. I don’t want to fiddle with any dials, even if they are projections. I just want the car to read my mind and drive.
Critic, curator and museum director Aaron Betsky curated the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008, ran Rotterdam’s Netherlands Architecture Institute from 2001-2006 and these days, helms the Cincinnati Art Museum. See his previous blogs HERE and check back on Thursday for his next post.
Follow W magazine on Facebook and join the discussion.