Screens in motorcars, what could possibly go wrong?

On: October 7, 2021
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The dashboard does not merely afford drivers control over the car, but also mediates information between the vehicle and driver. The digitization of the motorcar now means that the proliferation of screens increases the amount of information that is mediated to drivers through infotainment functionality displayed on those screens. This results in concerns over distraction whilst driving as these screens compete with attention that should be directed towards the road and other road users. The AAA Foundation For Traffic Safety’s critical annual study of car infotainment systems exemplifies this concern over interior information overload as a result of added dashboard functionality (Gross 2017). Additionally, Google announced gaming functionality on the dashboard through smartphone integration in Android Auto (Wilson 2021). It becomes apparent that the dashboard of the modern motorcar contains contradictory infrastructural arrangements as it should aid in driving safely, but simultaneously endangers this most basic functionality through added features. Based on Star and Bowker’s (2006) understanding that “something that was once an object of development and design becomes sunk into infrastructure over time” (Star and Bowker 2006), this media archaeological venture will examine the past development of the dashboard as an infrastructure to form the basis of an understanding of how the contradictory infrastructural arrangements of the motorcar’s dashboard function presently to aid, but also harm driving.

Unpacking the dashboard

The dashboard did not originate in the motorcar, but in its precursor, the horse and carriage. Here it functioned as a the board that shielded the driver from mud and water being kicked up by the horses in front of the carriage. Considering its potential to protect the driver from the elements, the dashboard functions as a separation between the individual controlling the carriage and the elements that can potentially impede control through obstructed vision. Separation of the driver and this impedance is what affords the driver less distractions from the task at hand and therefore augments the ability to drive (Tkacz 2009). This allows us to identify even the earliest of dashboard as interfaces, as “the interface is that form of relation which is defined by the simultaneity and inseparability of its processes of separation and augmentation” (Hookway 2011, 3).

Early 20th century car dashboard © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons
Early 20th century car dashboard © BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons

As the first motorized cars are developed in the beginning of the 20th century, this protective board remains incorporated in the horseless carriage, now shielding occupants from the heat and noise of petrol engines. In conjunction with the technological progress that is the internal combustion engine, a new found use for the dashboard meant that it was utilized to depict information and add functionality through meters, gauges, lights, switches and buttons. As these increasingly integrate into the wooden plank that still constitutes the dashboard at this time, it starts to resemble the modern interpretation of what a dashboard should look like. Whilst only a crude representation of what is happening to the vehicle and its inner workings, the dashboard became a mediating apparatus in the middle of the 20th century that informed the driver about what the vehicle’s parameters and therefore its design focused predominantly on conveying driving functionality. Driving demands a form of attention that is distributed instead of a singular focus and the functional, supplementary information supplied by early dashboards aids this necessary state of awareness (Tkacz 2009). Information mediated through the early dashboard did not redirect attention away from piloting the vehicle and therefore resembles modern goals in interface design where designers strive to make information infrastructures as invisible as possible (Star & Bowker 2006).

Audi Virtual Cockpit @Robert Basic

More recently, the simplification of driver information on the early dashboard has made way for Sheller’s (2004) conceptualization of ‘feeling the car’. This concept is best explained as the development of the dashboard towards constituting a technically laden, immersive control center where vast amounts of data and information are gathered, processed and mediated back to the driver, that can then be productively utilized by occupants to make split-second decisions (Sheller 2004). Sheller argues that the modern dashboard aids in establishing a sense of an augmented self for drivers, where increased amounts of information are utilized for greater control over the process of driving. Conversely, the latest generation of modern vehicles being supplied with ‘Virtual Cockpits’ that replace the traditional clocks portraying speed and rpm (rotations per minute of the engine) in the gauge cluster of the dashboard with a screen that can portray all manner of information, is said to contradict what is crucial to the very essence of driving. This gauge cluster screen that was first introduced by Audi has the ability to afford the driver even more infotainment functionality, whilst maintaining the possibility to have the screen portray the classic gauges that historically have always been analogue (Meixner et al. 2017).

The proliferation of screens means that the digitally convergent dashboard adds functionality, whilst traditional information becomes remediated and inter-textual through digital technology in order to organize the increased functionality and amount of information present in cars (Couldry and Hepp 2013). Critics claim that this process entails that: “What happens under the hood comes to be understood as information rather than sensation” (Packer and Oswald 2010, 318). Sensation is reduced through a ‘triple displacement’ through screens where: “First, the driver was distanced from the road environment; second, the driver displaced the vacuum of sensation with entertainment and advanced information systems; and third, these systems have developed into networks that work to displace the driver from … driving” (Packer and Oswald 2010, 329–330). This suggests that the present incarnation of the dashboard entails that the separating function of the dashboard now predominates and does remove the driver from the process of driving.

Separation potentially harms augmentation

What this uncovers about the automotive dashboard’s infrastructure is that it no longer adheres to the goal of making information infrastructures invisible. The argument can be made that the dashboard reached a state where it has to process and mediate too much information to drivers. This suggests that gaming on the dashboard may well be an over stimulus in an already overly information rich modern dashboard and establishes a critical stance towards the amount of stimulus we allow in the metal boxes we pilot daily among pedestrians and cyclists. Whilst the dashboard has always had the function of simultaneously separating and augmenting the driving experience, the proliferation of screens that compete for attention show that too much separation could potentially harm augmentation, and therefore harm public safety.

Couldry, Nick, and Andreas Hepp. 2013. “Conceptualizing mediatization: Contexts, traditions, arguments.” Communication Theory 23, no. 3: 191-202.

Gross, Andrew. 2017. New Vehicle Infotainment Systems Create Increased Distractions Behind the Wheel. May 10 2017.

Hookway, Brandon. 2011. Interface: A genealogy of mediation and control. Princeton University.

Meixner, G. 2017. “Retrospective and Future Automotive Infotainment Systems—100 Years of User Interface Evolution.” In Automotive User Interfaces. Springer, Cham.

Packer, Jeremy, and Kathleen F. Oswald. 2010. “From windscreen to widescreen: Screening technologies and mobile communication.” The Communication Review 13 (4): 309- 339.

Sheller, Mimi. 2004. “Automotive emotions: Feeling the car.” Theory, culture & society 21 (4-5): 221-242.

Star, Susan Leigh, and Geoffrey C. Bowker. 2006. “How to Infrastructure.” In Handbook of New Media: Social Shaping and Social Consequences of ICTs, edited by Leah A. Lievrouw and Sonia M. Livingstone, 230–45. London: SAGE

Tkacz, Nate. 2009. CONNECTION PERFECTED: What the dashboard reveals. context, 9.

Wilson, Luke. 2021. Android Auto update adds games to your car’s dashboard – what could possibly go wrong? September 30 2021.

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