A Beginner’s Guide to Digital Instrumentation

Courtesy Mercedes-Benz

Mercedes-Benz Head-Up Display

Chances are, anyone reading this post learned to drive a car with some sort of traditional gauge setup. Speedometer, tachometer, engine temperature, gas level, maybe a warning that someone needs to fasten their seatbelt. But is it possible the near future will leave such an interior feeling old-fashioned, obsolete, better suited for classic cars and car shows? We all know how fondly our zealously up-to-date culture likes to deride (or sometimes obsess over) old technological “breakthroughs” like cassette tapes or first-generation iPods, computing devices that look and feel like bricks in comparison to the sleek devices of today. With their growing computing power and ever-more-sophisticated interiors, why would cars be exempt from this double-time march of progress?

Surely we’ve seen this coming. Nothing moves as quickly as technology or has quite the same way of spreading across all parts of a particular product or experience. We have our award-winning infotainment systems; how long could it have been before some of the operating philosophy behind fighter-jet cockpits or the crisp graphics and formidable computing power of smartphones began showing up right in front of drivers’ noses? Not long, apparently: just take a look at the new display setups appearing in consumer vehicles, from the head-up displays (yes, like fighter jets, sort of) to fully computerized dashboards. But if you haven’t necessarily been keeping an enthusiast’s eye on the automotive market, you might not quite know what these new features are all about. They are, after all, still pretty new. So here’s a quick rundown of a few of the more important (or common) among them.

Copyright Audi

Audi’s Virtual Cockpit
Now available on the TT roadster, A4 sedan, Q7 crossover, and R8 supercar, Audi’s Virtual Cockpit is currently the most highly developed of all non-analog dashboards—though Tesla is a close contender (see below). Automakers have been digitizing their instrumentation for a while now, and even economy subcompacts like the Chevrolet Trax have featured electronic setups. But Audi’s technology, introduced on the 2016 TT, could be one of the closer living approximations of what the fully instrumented dashboards of the future will look like.

Using a special quad-core processor made by Nvidia (best known for its computer graphics cards), Audi’s virtual cockpit replaces the entire gauge setup with a high-resolution virtual screen that can display full digital versions of the traditional gauges or shrink those gauges into the corners of the screen to make room for, say, a navigation map with Google Earth 3D graphics. In other words, you can choose to have anything that would normally appear on the center infotainment screen appear in front of you on the dash, configured in various ways with more traditional driving information. Currently, the virtual cockpit is not the most accessible of features (it requires a $3,250 package on the A4 Premium Plus), but as with other tech products (think cellphones), widespread availability and a lower price point are doubtlessly not very far off.

Copyright Mazda

Head-Up Displays
Yes, automakers got the idea for head-up displays from fighter jets. Now the displays come in consumer vehicles. No, they’re still not really as cool as they are in planes. But they do show important driving information on or near the windshield just above the dashboard, and if Audi’s Virtual Cockpit means drivers won’t feel the need to glance over at the infotainment screen as often, head-up displays mean drivers should hardly even have to look down at the dash. Designs vary between manufacturers: in the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, for instance, the display is projected onto special glass set into the windshield and can be adjusted for brightness and placement—and it runs about $900. The Mazda3 and Mazda6, on the other hand, feature an “Active Driving Display” that uses a curved piece of plastic rising out of the dash, meant to cut down on unwanted reflection. Both systems are meant to show in the lower part of the driver’s field of vision, and they present similar info: speed, cruise control, navigation prompts, and/or safety warnings.

Tesla Model S Interior

Then there’s Tesla, which probably deserves a blog post of its own if we’re out to discuss advances in automotive technology and instrumentation. Its Model S is already famous for its giant 17-inch touchscreen, which can control almost everything in and about the car. That touchscreen is complemented by a completely digital dashboard, and there are almost no buttons other than those on the steering wheel. Perhaps it would make more sense to list Tesla before Audi, as the all-electric automaker was onto the virtual cockpit thing from the start. Tesla has always been a make of its own, however, aimed at disrupting pretty much all aspects of the auto industry as we’ve so far known it—so it seems excusable to discuss its evolution a little differently.

But to really get an idea of where this evolution is taking us, you might study the cockpit of the forthcoming Tesla Model 3. There is no instrumentation, just a central 15-inch touchscreen. It’s been suggested that the onset of fully autonomous driving will eliminate the need for traditional dashboards or driver controls; remember, the Model 3 is meant to be the first “affordable” offering from a company that has long staked its place on the frontier of self-driving cars.

So those of you drivers out there who care first and foremost about the driving—how do you feel about doing away with a traditional dash, gauges and all? And for the rest of us, could a virtual cockpit end up being more of a distraction than anything else, with its overabundance of highly colorful info and maps? Or is it simply the next step in safer, more efficient driving? Again, given the rapid pace of technological development, it seems very possible that in 20 or 30 years these questions will barely even matter anymore, and that we’ll have all been thoroughly trained (or raised) to operate fast-moving car-size iPhones.

—Chase Hammond

Do you drive a car with a head-up display or virtual dashboard? Are you shopping for one?

Find Certified Pre-Owned Cars and Used Cars in your area at CarGurus.

Used Audi TT
Used Audi A4
Used Audi Q7
Used Audi R8
Used Chevrolet Trax
Used Mercedes-Benz C-Class
Used Mazda Mazda3
Used Mazda Mazda6
Used Tesla Model S

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