By learning from history.
It doesn't matter where you look in the automotive industry - economy cars, sports cars, even pickup trucks - digital screens are replacing analog gauges. We can see why digital gauge clusters have caught on; they are cheaper for automakers to produce, show more information to the driver, and offer wider customization potential. There's just one issue; most digital clusters aren't nearly customizable enough.
Many clusters let drivers change what appears in front of them - you can have a set of large gauges or perhaps a full-color map while navigating. But with the limitless possibilities afforded by having the entire gauge cluster be one giant screen, why aren't automakers being more creative with how the information is presented? If we had it our way, automakers would offer a setting where you can select from a long list of classic gauge clusters filled from the OEM's past vehicles.
Listed below, we've cherry-picked a few of our favorite instrument clusters that we'd love to see mimicked on a digital display.
Audi was among the first automakers to start replacing traditional gauges with screens. The Virtual Cockpit Display is one of the most well-rounded systems available, offering multiple cool tachometer styles on performance models like the 2022 Audi RS6 Avant, and beautiful Google Earth imagery on the maps. But just because we like Virtual Cockpit doesn't mean it couldn't be improved. When operating with the standard speedometer and tachometer, we'd love to have the option to select late-model Audi gauges like the R8 GT and S4 (pictured below).
For a more retro vibe, we would love to have the option to select the digital gauges from the Ur Quattro, one of the first cars to have such a feature. Imagine how cool that would look in a modern S3, and it would connect to Audi's heritage. If we wanted to go way back, some of the gauges from Audi's Auto Union days look like jewelry, and would offer a nice throwback if rendered on the Virtual Cockpit.
Of all the automakers on this list, we think BMW had the most to lose when it switched to virtual gauges. BMW offered some of the simplest yet most elegant dials of any automaker and the company's digital replacements are downright boring by comparison. Pictured below are a few examples of BMW's best gauge clusters compared with what's offered today. Yes, the modern screens are simple and clear to read like their analog counterparts, but they lack any of the beauty or the customization found in other systems.
The iDrive 8 system in the BMW iX and i4 will finally allow drivers to select a full-color map in the gauge cluster, even letting owners project Apple Maps. To BMW's credit, the iX and i4 also offer more visually interesting gauge designs because the ones in iDrive 7 were too vanilla. What good is having a digital screen if it barely shows more information than a non-configurable needle? BMW is improving, but being able to select E46 M3 gauges on an i4 would be the icing on the cake.
Lexus began its switch to digital gauges when the LFA came out in 2011. The car's 5.2-liter V10 engine revved so quickly, Lexus said a traditional needle couldn't keep up. This digital tachometer has appeared on many Lexus models since the LFA, sporting a cool feature where it can slide to present an additional screen with more information. We applaud Lexus for its unique take on a half-digital half-analog setup, and we'd like to see the company take it a step further by bringing back the first-generation IS 300 gauges in digital form. The IS 300 had some of the most unique instruments we've ever seen in a car, and we'd love to see them again in a new Lexus model.
Perhaps more so than any automaker on this list, gauges are integral to Porsche, specifically the 911. Every 911 since the original has a gauge cluster with five dials, while models like the Boxster and Cayman get a smaller version with three dials. The 2022 Porsche 911 Carrera still has a lovely analog tachometer mounted in the center, but the surrounding four gauges are replaced by screens. Porsche deserves credit for how stylish both the analog and digital displays look, but we have to subtract a few points because the outer portions of the screens are blocked by the steering wheel.
We hope Porsche continues offering analog tachometers for its gas-powered cars because they look like an expensive watch dial. This is harder to recommend for electric cars for the Taycan, but we see no reason why Porsche couldn't incorporate retro-style fonts and styles into its all-digital clusters.
Chevrolet first experimented with digital gauge clusters way back in the 1980s with the C4 generation Corvette. The C7 Corvette used a digital speedometer with analog gauges surrounding it, while the latest C8 model forgoes analog needles entirely. Since Chevy was one of the earliest automakers to offer digital gauges on a production car, we think it would be an amazing idea to offer the C4 gauges as a selectable menu option on the new Corvette. Think about how nostalgic owners will feel when they can look at the same gauges they had on their old Corvette in the dash of the new one.
We understand our idea of rendering old-school gauges on a digital display may have some opposition because this idea has been tried (unsuccessfully) not so long ago. Jaguar began offering an all-digital gauge cluster back in 2010 when it debuted the XJ. This LCD display mimicked the look and feel of traditional gauges, which looked futuristic at the time. Unfortunately, the overly-styled design hasn't aged well and now looks like a product of its era.
We don't think history will repeat itself in this case because modern LED displays are far more advanced than the LCDs available in 2010. If Jaguar is willing to try again, the UK automaker has plenty of beautiful designs to choose from, both from its historic and recent history.
As proof that our concept can work, we wrap up with Volvo. The Swedish automaker now uses a digital display in all of its cars with a few different design themes, including a "chrome" option meant to mimic analog gauges. Unlike the Jaguar digital gauges from a decade ago, the Volvo design looks realistic enough to fool you upon first glance. We already know Volvo is capable of making a screen appear like a real gauge, so we want to see more options available like the blue dials from the S60 Polestar or the retro ones from the P1800 Cyan.