It may be hard for drivers today to imagine, but in the early 1900s, most automobiles did not have dashboard meters, and people literally drove by the seat of their pants. Even after the speedometer was introduced, its prohibitive cost prevented it from becoming standard equipment. It was only when countries began regulating vehicular traffic by implementing speed limits (much to the chagrin of motoring enthusiasts) that cars were required to have speedometers.
Modern car dashboards have the same basic cluster of speedo, tacho, plus temperature and fuel meters. Most automobiles also have some form of trip computer, which calculates the average fuel consumption and estimated range-to-empty.
These are proven analogue setups, but more and more of the major automakers have gone digital for their dashboard dials, making them high-tech and highly functional, too.
The digitisation of the dash didn’t happen overnight, of course. Long-time in-car entertainment (ICE) enthusiasts will remember how the head unit interface had improved over the years. Initially, it was just knobs and push-buttons on the deck itself, followed by aftermarket remote controllers affixed to the steering wheel/column. Then the ICE interface was upgraded to factory-fitted “satellite” audio controls, accompanied by in-dash audio info. Eventually, built-in hi-fi systems with integral head units became common.
Carmakers, in their “dash” for technological progress and product differentiation, have advanced to thin film transistor, liquid-crystal display (TFT LCD), which turns the traditional instrument cluster into a virtual panel with programmable infotainment management and reconfigurable “number crunchers”.
Jaguar, for example, equipped its current XJ flagship with delightful 3D-effect digital gauges on a 12.3-inch high-definition display. It looks futuristic and works in a fantastic manner, although in an early-production XJ we drove, there was an occasional lag in the “rendering” of the tachometer needle when the engine revs were speeding up or down the dial. A five-way button on the steering wheel accesses the different functions of the “video game” screen, which automatically “morphs” to relay relevant information in an instant. The meters also take on a red hue when the Jag’s Dynamic mode is selected.
Another cool “chameleon” instrument cluster is the one in the Volvo V40. It has three modes – Elegance, Eco and Performance. The first mode shows a normal layout with amber illumination, the second changes to a green colour backdrop and brings up a dedicated eco-driving meter, while the third makes the background red and displays a tachometer smack in the centre and a power gauge on the right. All the visuals are crystal clear, and the change-over from one theme to another is silky smooth.