One of the most striking aspects of the new 2010 Jaguar XJ is what's missing. There is no traditional gauge cluster, just a black void directly in front of the driver. Jaguar has ditched the typical analog setup found in most cars in favor of a TFT computer screen, similar to that on which you're reading this story.
Turn the car on and the virtual gauges appear out of the blackness, although the displays are relatively conventional. Seeing such a display did get us thinking, though.
If the dashboard is no more than a computer screen, could it not be reprogrammed to display any number of different concepts? Could we not install a widget in our Jag just as we download an app for our smartphones? At the touch of a button we could jump from being Phil Hill in a C-Type to David Hasselhoff camping it up in KITT.
A call to Jaguar's advanced design studio near Coventry, England, revealed we were not alone in our thoughts. Obsessed with their iPhones, Jag's designers had already started plotting the dashboard of the future. We were called to the studio, where we sat down with Experience Design Manager Mark Humphries to develop a series of concepts that could revolutionize the way information is displayed in our cars.
"The decision to create a virtual dashboard was taken very early in the development process of the XJ," he says. "Our clientele are affluent and used to premium products with lots of features. We wanted to provide something that provided a synergy with their experience outside the car, but we also wanted it to be useful and not gimmicky. We won't produce technology for technology's sake."
He admits that Apple's iPhone was a key influence. "It's about producing technology that makes people smile. Consumers like the appearance, feel and functionality of the iPhone, but there is also a sociological aspect — they like what it says about them."
Humphries and his team also looked at a more serious application of "virtual" technology. "We also spent a day with the Eurofighter aircraft team. Their 'glass cockpit' filters the key information to reveal only what the pilot needs at that moment. When you're landing, for example, it will only show information relevant to that action." This study underlined a key difference between a dashboard and a smartphone. While the latter focuses on infotainment, a dashboard must deliver key information quickly and with clarity.
The physical restrictions of an automotive application demanded further compromise. "The viewing area of the instrument display hasn't really changed. It's still defined by the steering wheel, the driver's position and the need to provide a cowl to prevent light falling on it." The XJ's screen is a peculiar shape with a maximum width of 1,280 pixels and a height of 480 pixels. "There are also some legislative hurdles to be overcome, such as the need to still show warning lights when you start the car," explains Humphries, "but the legislation should evolve as the technology develops."
Beyond these limitations, though, is a world of opportunity. Although the XJ was programmed with analog-style instruments, Humphries admits this will change as customers become more familiar with the technology. "There's huge scope for invention and for using the vast quantities of data available in our cars," he says.
The days are long gone when designers would scamp ideas with a pencil and paper. We discuss the theory, define the concepts and leave Humphries and his team to turn our thoughts into a CAD "reality." Our quartet of concepts is based on a modal system. In other words, each dashboard is designed to accommodate a different task or to reflect the driver's mood. This is the thinking behind each mode.
This is a traditional analog design with a contemporary twist. It's more "real" than the other concepts and the graphics are designed to mimic authentic, luxury materials.
The comparatively simple fascia is complemented by a central touchscreen featuring the "Jaguar butler." This butler uses next-generation human-machine-interface (HMI) technology to offer intelligent advice. For example, it might automatically program the navigation system to take account of your daily schedule, or suggest alternate routes before you even think to look for one.
Inspired by the world of gaming, this is a much more youthful design that uses crisp, modern colors. It's about using available technology in a new way, employing advanced telematics to integrate the navigation system with a plethora of onboard sensors and cameras.
The screens reveal a three-dimensional preview of the circuit, a stopwatch and a G-meter. Track mode records your lap and then allows you to relive it using footage recorded on the cameras. Tap an icon and you can save it to a USB stick or upload it straight to YouTube to show your friends. Such a concept is a shoo-in for an R model.
This is an unashamed nod to the Smiths Instruments' dials found in the original E-Type. "It's about using the blank canvas of the fascia to have some fun," says Humphries. Sophisticated graphics have been used to re-create the feeling of vinyl, chrome and glass. Even the odometer is animated so the numbers rotate into place as if they were on an old-fashioned barrel.
The simple fascia is supplemented by oil, fuel and water gauges on the touchscreen display. The toggle switches, which control some thoroughly modern functions, are touch-sensitive and animated. This would be perfect for the next-generation XK.
Stealth mode is a futuristic design that presents only the information you need, when you need it. It's a minimalist solution with a low luminosity that sets out to be as unobtrusive as possible.
You can request information using an on-demand system, or it will be automatically displayed at the relevant moment using JaguarSense technology. The latter would, for example, only display navigation information when it's appropriate, such as on the approach to a junction. "This approach can create a very cosseting experience," reckons Humphries.
The Future of Virtual Gauge Clusters
For now, the virtual gauges are hard-coded into the XJ's electronic brain, but that wouldn't be too hard to fix. Humphries admits that "it's hard not to imagine" a future in which we are able to download dashboard updates and new skins for our displays.
And although there are likely to be some regulatory restrictions regarding the display of data, we can also imagine a world of personalized dashboards. "You won't be able to download a picture of your family that stops you seeing the speedo, but within certain constraints there will be considerable freedom. We could imagine an iPad app, for example, that allows you to design a dashboard within a template."
Jaguar's supercar concept at the Paris auto show will feature some of this tech, and Humphries reckons it could be commonplace within 10 years. The app economy could be about to find a new hero.