Bad Design Trend Part 1: The “Floating” Infotainment Screen

Perhaps it was always meant to happen.

It was bound to end in this collision of storage, engineering, and marketing. A brain-scrambling mess of numbers and gadgetry. The 4.1-inch screen was not enough, so manufacturers pushed the boundaries: 6-inch screens, 8-inch screens, then buttons replaced entirely by a touchscreen akin to having a jumbotron in your car.

We needed space for cupholders, for sunglasses, for infotainment systems and A/C vents. Like tamagotchis, it was great – at first.

As the spaces grew and safety standards increased, something had to give, but the market demanded more. The perception was that Millenials must be catered to with infinitely-increasing tech in vehicles. And then, we broke it. We broke design.

Our endless pursuit of bigger finally convinced the interior designers to throw their pencils down in frustration. Sketch after sketch tossed aside into overflowing trash bins, hair pulled out and now littering their studio’s concrete floors. Coffee stains giving a timeless reminder of the struggle. How are we going to fit a screen this big in here? Eff it, we’ll just add it on later…

And so they did.

Mazda3 Interior, featuring floating screen.

Mazda and Mercedes-Benz were the first to crack. With the redesign of the Mazda3 and the new Mercedes-Benz CLA in 2014 (the halo cars for Millenials?), the infotainment/navigation screen was popped out from the main console structure. To be fair, it was a great idea, take out the big square thing at the top of the center console so you wouldn’t need a front-facing camera to see out the windshield a la Daybreakers.

But now, with vehicles as far out as 2017 being leaked/discovered by spy photographers, the trend continues.

Clockwise from top left: Audi A3, Lincoln MKC, Volvo XC90, Tesla Model S
Clockwise from top left: Audi A3, Lincoln MKC, Volvo XC90, Tesla Model S

Some have done a better job than others. Companies that have adopted the retractable navigation screen, like Audi, are able to switch between a clean, minimalist dash design, and a fully intuitive touchscreen. It isn’t a radically new idea, there are plenty of luxury cars that have been doing a retractable or fold-out design, but it’s a new (better) take on an old solution. Others, like Lincoln, have replaced the gear selector with buttons now on the central dash. And then there are the solutions from Tesla and Volvo – both beautiful interiors, but with a major problem:

Time.

Remember when BMW debuted the iDrive system years ago? It was one of the industry’s first stabs at the modern infotainment system. It was also universally hated – slow, unresponsive, and adding layers and layers of complications to find features that were simple switches just years before.

Imagine trying to find that one feature and having to scroll, swipe, and tap screen after screen to finally switch away from that one song you have on Spotify that you really don’t want your grandmother to hear you dropping a lyric to. Are you honestly going to pull to the side of the road? Of course not, you’re going to faff about until you are victorious in your hunt for that one feature hidden deep in your infotainment system.

The good ‘ol days – except when your passenger doesn’t have an airbag, oops.

Now look at any center console from before the navigation-era and you’ll see how every function had a button or a switch. When one is driving, using a lot of these buttons becomes second nature, where you don’t need to take your eyes off the road. Knobs, dials, buttons and switches all with a certain feel to tell you – that’s the one…now touch me, I’ll play your favorite music and not eat the tape this time, I swear!

Some manufacturers actually started to become hilariously complicated by the early 00s. Saab, Volvo, even Mercedes-Benz and BMW had everything from cassette players to , even a physical numberpad for the woeful onboard phone system.

C'mon Saab, a little restraint would go a long way.
C’mon Saab, a little restraint would go a long way!

But, as we are seeing with each new vehicle being revealed, the problem continues.

Mazda and Mercedes-Benz continue to use the same pop out design that, let’s be honest, doesn’t look well thought-out. Others are switching to the full tablet design that has the problems listed above. Demands for more continue and safety standards continue to get more stringent.

Something will have to give…and at the moment, it’s looking like we’ll have to treat our cars like planes in a pre-drive checklist: music set up – check, A/C at the right temps – check, handling in comfort mode – check, destination plugged into sat-nav – check.

Or the inevitable truth that, in the near term, distracted driving will just continue to be the norm for most drivers.

Until we surrender complete control to our autonomous vehicle overlords…

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