One of the strategic aspects of the modern automotive industry is the high degree of configurability it offers to the customers of its cars. Potential buyers can go through endless lists of accessories, configurations, motor, transmission and interior options. In particular vendors in Germany offer such a wide choice of individual configurations that in an average day in a car end production line, the workers literally do not see two equal cars. What a difference, by the way, against the first cars made in mass-production, Ford Motor's model T, of which Henry Ford once said "You can get it in any color you wish as long as it is black"!
Of course each little add-on will appear as an extra in the bill, but this is not the point here. What I want to get at is that there always is an exception to the rule of individualization. One major part in the car presents itself to the fastidious customer always in the same costume: The dashboard reliably looks the same whether you buy the cheapest entry-level version or the luxury line with all bells and whistles in it.
Well, there may be some minor variations. An electronic climate control perhaps replaces the cheap standard air con in the entry models, or a combined radio and navigation systems may shine in the dashboard instead of a simple radio. The core however, the design of the dashboard instruments, is the same for all buyers. No matter which taste you have, you have to accept whatever was in the mind of the designer when he designed it years ago. It's sink or swim. You can get the car painted in any color you can imagine, or add any imaginable accessory from pink crocodile leather seats to heated chrome-plated walnut wood inserts for the pedals. But even though you have it in front of your eyes all the time you are behind the wheel, you can get only one dashboard layout. Not even different colors. A friend of mine recently was determined to buy a new specific car but when he saw the style of the instrument cluster he broke out in tears and walked away from that brand.
Though, it would be so easy to provide adaptable instrument clusters. With today's graphics processors and displays and with the experience of 20 years + in building "glass cockpits" for airliners, the ingredients are available. And the first trials are under way. For instance, the Heinrich Hertz Institute in Berlin demos an adaptable, ergonomic, all-electronic virtual automotive dashboard based on a 3D display as the core element. In their design, the scientists focus on ergonomic topics, displaying context-sensitive informations only when needed. Another focus point is to adapt the display to individual drivers daddy may prefer to find himself in a racily, Porsche-like environment while his daughter might prefer to all these iPod multimedia options in her display. In any case, change is easy because it is all implemented in software.
I wonder when the industry finally will discover that individual instrument clusters, like individual "skins" for Microsoft's media player on our PCs, could be a topic for their designers. Not only for the sake of ergonomics. But also for the sake of user-friendliness.