Digital cockpits are becoming the industry norm as copycat Tesla interiors proliferate

When Model S hit the streets in 2012, it was “the electric car that shatters every myth,” as Consumer Reports put it. It was the first EV to offer a combination of performance, style and interior space, and innovative features such as the frunk and, later, Autopilot. However, the feature that seemed to draw the most attention from press and public was its enormous touchscreen. 

Above: The Tesla Model S was considered unusual back in 2012 when it launched with its massive touchscreen display (Source: Tesla)

Even in 2012, automotive touchscreens were far from new. The first ones seem to have been introduced by Buick in 1985 (they proved to be unpopular with consumers because—you guessed it—they didn’t work worth a darn). Screens gradually worked their way down to the lower price segments, and by the time of the Model S launch, they were pretty common features.

However, even at first glance, Tesla’s touchscreen was obviously a completely different animal. Not only were ordinary vehicle screens far smaller, but they tended to control only the stereo (“infotainment” wasn’t a buzzword just yet) and the AC, and they still didn’t work very well. In fact, even today, the touchscreen seems to inspire derision—as late as last year, curmudgeons at Jalopnik, Automobile and Popular Mechanics were writing that the auto touchscreen is “a failure” that “needs to go” (bizarrely, none of these articles mentions Tesla).

Well, as Sean Szymkowski writes in CNET’s Road Show, touchscreens aren’t going away. In fact, as automakers rush to copy all things Tesla, its analog gauges that may soon go the way of tail fins. Szymkowski cites a report from ABI Research that predicts that 12-inch and larger Tesla-style screens, complete with AI-powered “virtual assistants,” will trickle down from luxury models to most mass-market vehicles by 2030.

Examples of the trend aren’t hard to find. The new 2021 Mercedes S-Class has a horizontal display behind the steering wheel for the instruments, and a larger vertical screen that handles infotainment. As Autoblog reports, the company’s upcoming electric EQS appears to feature the same arrangement. The Audi e-tron uses touchscreens to control most vehicle functions, although it foregoes a large Tesla-style screen in favor of stylish smaller screens located where you’d expect the knobs and buttons to be. The new Jeep Grand Wagoneer concept has screens everywhere—the dashboard consists of three screens, and even the back-seat passengers get two apiece, one on the seat back and another on the headrest. And screen-mania is by no means limited to passenger cars. Startup Arrival recently revealed an electric transit bus that has screens plastered all over its interior and exterior.

Amid all the screaming about screens, many observers are missing the most important point: it isn’t the size of Tesla’s screen that makes it revolutionary—rather, it’s the fact that it’s the user interface for one central computer (known in the trade as an electronic control unit, or ECU) that controls every aspect of the vehicle’s operation. Legacy vehicles have numerous ECUs, each controlling different functions—some cars have as many as 80.

As Tesla co-founder Ian Wright explained to me in an interview for my (recently revised) history of Tesla, the company’s integrated ECU represents a revolution in automotive design, and a major competitive advantage for Tesla. “The major reliability problem with [non-Tesla] cars is the electronics and software,” Wright told me. “I think Tesla did take a real Silicon Valley systems architecture perspective in designing all the electronics in the Model S.” Among other advantages, the integrated approach means that, as technology improves, features can be upgraded quickly and smoothly via over-the-air updates.

Above: Tech companies like Samsung are showcasing their take on the digital cockpit (YouTube: Samsung Newsroom)

Legacy automakers have been slow to follow Tesla’s lead in introducing integrated systems. However, ABI Research believes that will change. “A single ECU will, in the future, control everything from front and rear seat infotainment, advanced driver-assist functions, the digital instrument cluster and more,” Szymkowski writes. Companies like Nvidia and Qualcomm, which specialize in the kind of processors used in auto ECUs, are likely to prosper.

All these big screens are the visual aspect of a powerful trend toward connectivity. Once again, Tesla didn’t invent this concept—GM introduced its OnStar service, which provides subscription-based communications, emergency services, navigation and remote diagnostics, in 1996. However, Tesla’s connectivity features appear to be light-years beyond anything offered by other automakers. To date, Tesla is the only automaker that can enable substantial new features via over-the-air (OTA) updates.

However, just as they’re copying Tesla’s eye-catching big screen, other OEMs are also scrambling to raise their connectivity games. Volvo and Lucid, among others, have EVs in the pipeline that will feature OTA capabilities, and Ford says it will begin adding the feature to redesigned vehicles this year.

Catching up in the connectivity game could be an existential issue. Big Auto’s worst nightmare is becoming a provider of a low-margin commodity product as younger tech companies provide the profitable add-on services. In January, Sony embarrassed the auto industry by showing a concept EV that included a (Tesla-inspired) checklist of modern vehicle features, including a big screen and OTA updates.

As Neil Winton writes in a recent Forbes article, legacy automakers have failed to offer connectivity features that are actually useful. “Because of this failure of design and communication, manufacturers are in danger of surrendering massive revenues and profit streams to high-tech companies like Google and Apple.”

Winton cites a recent report from consulting firm Capgemini Invent: “The only big carmaker to handle connectivity in a user-friendly and intelligent way is Tesla, which has the advantage of selling its vehicles to first adopters of expensive, high technology likely to be keen to explore the nuances of hands-free driving, radar cruise control, driverless parking, driver coaching and even some over-complicated ways of finding radio stations.”

The report’s author, Rainer Mehl, believes it’s not too late for legacy auto to get into Tesla’s league before the likes of Sony, LG and Alibaba eat their corporate lunches. “The traditional manufacturers need to catch up and get better with these services,” Mehl told Winton, adding that they need to build partnerships with other carmakers. “High-tech companies are beginning to get in between the customer and the car, and carmakers need to defend this. If you give ground to the tech player you will not be in control of the customer anymore.”


Written by: Charles Morris