The time has come. The displays in our cars are taking giant steps toward morphing into digital ones. Some of you may like it, others not so much – but that’s the way it is. Numbers. Numbers instead of pointers – something that fully analog flip clocks could do very well in the 70s. Later on, clock radios with individually controlled lighting elements came on the market, making the analog world a bit more digital. Later in the 80s we had to wear a digital wristwatch to be really hip. At the same time, LCD displays adopted from spacecraft as “a new hope” were introduced in many mid-range car models as a special option, but they gradually disappeared again. The instrument world we looked at became analog again. Fast forward into the 90s when clumsy attempts by car manufacturers gave a premonition of what was perhaps to come.

It was the 90s when various cars not only rusted in the most spectacular fashion and whole cable harnesses literally disintegrated but numbers replaced pointers again. At first, they were small and inconspicuous; here a digital clock, there a small round display allowing you to change the temperature step by step at the push of a button. While in the displays of the 80s the speedometer and rev counter were controlled as colorful liquid crystals placed above an analog odometer, the trend was now going in precisely the opposite direction. Underneath analog dials – mostly of the round variety – displays were installed that could show the mileage, time, temperature and other more or less important data, all illuminated in the same color as the rest. Red for Audi dating back to the late 80s, amber for Mercedes-Benz, and green for Ford. Taste is debatable, but that was the beginning of de-analogization.

And precisely that makes cars of the 90s so special. This slight indecision, coupled with chubby design and sometimes even an unconsciously inevitable expiry date. Going into the new millennium the displays got larger; today they take up the whole dashboard in some models. A second screen on the center console is mandatory, and there is now also a third screen underneath for the air conditioning and other gadgets. At the most recent car and technology trade fairs we learned that simulated switches can be swiped from one display to the next, and that surfaces can even be haptically simulated using ultrasound. If that’s not enough for you, look out for touch-sensitive surfaces on the steering wheel, gesture control and eye tracking which should be in series production in a few years. BOSCH and Harmann have long been working on them. Most cars already understand your voice anyway.

Exciting. And it was here, back at these green pointers and coarse-pixel displays, where the foundations were laid. What a beautiful new world, far, far away from simply providing information about the condition of the vehicle and its speed. On the one hand that’s consistent, on the other hand there is a bit of a fear of whether it’ll be reliable long term – oh, and there’s also this element of confusion of what’s actually happening around me. If you want to know – off you go to your nearest new-car dealer. If you’re still reluctant – never before have cars of the 90s been as cheap as they are today.

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