The 21st Century Is Dissolving the Analog Speedometer

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Source: Ford

For a while now, we’ve been seeing more and more fancy LCD stuff on our vehicle dashboards. But just how common is the new digital design?

A new report by Frost & Sullivan, a leading industry research firm, has some interesting numbers that point to a move away from the analog systems that have kept us company on the road ever since the first personal automobiles rolled off the production line. F&S predicts that by 2021, every dashboard manufactured will have some digital component, and that 20% of these will be digital-only.

Think about it. The needles and analog gauges that are our central view behind the wheel are going to go from simple, neat indicators to the kind of digital soup we see on our smartphone screens.

Maybe the best example of modern digital dashboards are in the Toyota Prius, the trend-setter for hybrid car design. Of course, Toyota’s putting them in most of its other cars too, but the digital dashboard really came back with the Prius, as Toyota made the first real gambit away from the gasoline engine.

With these new digital designs, you get a lot more than a digital readout of your speed and trip counters. You get things like real-time fuel efficiency. You get the direction you’re driving in. And you get “bars” for remaining fuel, not just a needle dipping ominously down below “E.”

What you give up, though, is important, too.

BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images

BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images

According to an article on Continental, the speedometer goes back to when 1902 when German engineer Otto Schulze presented one at the Imperial Patent Office in Berlin. Others trace the origin of the speedometer back to none other than Charles Babbage, whose “difference engine” led to the emergence of today’s computing architectures.

The earliest speedometers were “eddy-cup” designs, in which a drive cable snakes from the transmission to the instrument panel, charging a magnet that allows for various increments of needle deflection. Since then, many of the analog speedometers in cars have become “electronic” in how they measure speed, although there is still an analog needle on the dash.

Up until the mid-1980s, the idea of a needle tracking RPMs was a standard part of auto design.

In 1992, a different kind of car appeared on American TV screens. Knight Rider’s KITT was a science-fiction version of a hot rod, with an impressive-looking dashboard covered with colored buttons and digital controls. KITT also came with a variety of features that are now commonplace, like voice activation, in-dash audio and video, and a virtual personality.

Not to be outdone by this high-tech fiction, actual car models out in 1993 and 1994 often came with a new kind of digital dashboard using a counter MPH readout rather than a speedometer needle. Many of them featured “arcade-style” visuals (see this wacky collection from Dark Roasted Blend) and a look that perfectly captures the thrill of that decade’s nascent ‘digital revolution’.

However, those cutting-edge designs didn’t really last. Various references to those old days of exploratory car technologies have characterized the digital speedometer as “unpopular,” as emphasized by a Hemmings reader regarding the 1984 Corvette: “The idiotic digital gauge package was widely reviled by consumers and pundits alike. In bright daylight they were all but impossible to read anyway…(they) didn’t convey the necessary data to the driver as well a set of conventional gauges.”

It might not seem like that big a deal – until you sit back and think about it. What’s more natural than watching that needle edge up as you stomp on the gas? And does a series of shifting digital numbers really give you a sense of how you’re speeding up and slowing down? Another criticism of the digital speedometer was that they just didn’t provide the same “sense” of acceleration and braking.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The fact that these digital displays were pushed back to the drawing board shows how, in a sense, car buyers get what they ask for.

With so many of today’s cars still sporting an analog needle in the days of Bluetooth and Siri, you might think that the old-school speedometer has proven itself popular enough to last. But it might not be that simple.

One good analogy is the manual transmission. Yes, you can still get these vehicles, but it becomes harder and harder to find them on the used car lot, which is where the rank and file go to shop. So these days, the stick shift is becoming more the province of luxury for special models, or old junkers from the days when standard transmission was, well, standard.

The analog speedometer might end up like that. As the new study seems to suggest, automakers will probably start building templates for the new digital dash, and more new cars will get some version of a one-size-fits-all digital dash display. Whether they’ll keep the speedometer needle might come down to cost, or consumer demand. You could argue that in the future era of autonomous cars, we might not be as dependent on the speedometer anyway. Regardless, if the classic speedometer becomes hard to find, there will be a lot of drivers who want this feature back, and will pay to get a custom analog needle on the dash.

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