We have a simply ludicrous coffee machine where I work. It’s a Wittenborg 9100. I know this because it introduces itself with the line “I’m the Wittenborg 9100” on its high-resolution touchscreen display. The latter has a number of uses, the first of which is to display the menu of hot, yummy beverages this bean-to-cup machine can rustle up. Naturally I choose ‘black coffee’, and as soon as I’ve made my selection a whole new world of needless information is presented.
Half of the display is dedicated to a rolling vista of snow-capped mountains, lush plantations and icy tundra, to entertain you during the brief moments that you’re standing there, waiting for your drink to arrive. The other side of the screen shows a countdown, a red circle that gradually closes around a static image of some coffee being brewed, before closing and turning green. Now, when you can physically see that coffee is no longer dribbling into the cup and hear that the clanking has silenced, the display visually confirms that your drink is ready,
At length, you’re reassured that dispensing is complete, with the invitation ‘please, pick up your beverage’. Every time I use this machine, I think about being behind the wheel and ask myself “do we really need all this information?”.
By reminding me of the present time and date, and informing me that its water temperature is 92.7 degrees, the Wittenborg 9100 probably thinks it’s doing me a favour, but it’s all white noise. It’s aggressively pitching information at my face that I’m forced to take notice of. I wish it wasn’t there.
Ever sat behind a dashboard so copiously stocked with information you don’t know where to start? Ever sat in a car at 70mph and realised that the only dial you’ve looked at in half an hour has been the speedometer? Surely car manufacturers must be able to spot a relationship between those two points?
Saab’s ‘night panel’ was a great idea, showing you only the information you really needed. Now, with the advent of ‘Virtual Cockpit’ OLED dashboard displays and the like, an even more sophisticated 21st century successor must be achievable. All of today’s driver information displays are customisable to some extent, but they never quite go far enough. Do we need a constant read out of the fuel level, for instance? Surely you only need to know how much fuel you have at the very beginning of a journey, so you can plan for a stop en route, and then as you approach reserve fuel. The rest of the time, it’s just another dial vying for your attention.
It could really go the way of oil pressure gauges and ammeters, condemned to an auxiliary display in a sub menu. When engines are entirely computer controls, you only need know that everything’s okay, and nothing does that better than a total absence of warning lights. Coolant temperature gauges have become rather marginalised, and not before time – today’s engines typically run at a set temperature or don’t run at all. Because there’s precious little you can do to improve matters, there’s no point in knowing that your engine’s running a little hot or a little cold. A warning light or – better still – dot matrix read-out when something goes outside an acceptable set of parameters is a far more useful idea.
That leaves us with the speedometer and tachometer, the two gauges that they’ll peel from my cold, dead fingers. Except, I don’t really need the rev counter for the majority of journeys I make – I’ll change up before 3,000 rpm as a force of habit, and can hear when a shift is due from the engine note. And the speedometer. We all joke about the mandatory 85mph speedos of North America in the ’80s, but that range covers most of our daily driving, if we’re honest. So have a ‘touring’ speedo, with nice, wide calibrations, which becomes a ‘sports’ 0-170mph speedo at a simple command – and a great moment to welcome the return of the tachometer.
Configurable dashboards are great news, then, but only if we can choose the information we want ourselves. Manufacturers just can’t be trusted.
(Images: Chris Haining / Redusernab 2017)