There's one similarity among the hundreds of shining new cars and trucks on display at the San Diego International Auto Show: their dashboard displays are getting bigger.
Inspired, no doubt, by the mammoth displays in Tesla's vehicles, automakers from Ford and Fiat Chrysler to Lexus and Subaru are rolling out models loaded with driver-facing screens nearly as wide as a ruler. But the size – and increasing complexity – of these screens have sparked debate about whether large displays are more or less safe for drivers.
The console of these new vehicles vary in style. Some displays are positioned vertically (portrait style) and others horizontally. Some are embedded on the face of the center console, while others sit upright, jutting out of the dash like a mounted tablet.
On the showroom floor of the San Diego Convention Center Saturday, the largest of these touchscreen displays was Ford's Mustang Mach-E, which features a 15.5in display – bigger than many laptop screens today. In terms of size, the Mach-E is dwarfed only by one maker: Tesla, whose vehicles sport 17in screens.
Sean Downey, the display manager for Ford, said the larger screens have become the trend of the industry this year. The company's newest Ford Explorer features a 10.1in screen now, while older models only had 8in displays.
Toyota's Lexus division, BMW, and Fiat Chrysler have all produced recent models with display screens measuring 12in or more. And Subaru's new Outback wagon and Impreza sedan have 11.6in displays available in all but the base models.
"Bigger is better," said Megan Marler, who manages Lincoln's West Coast marketing. "People really do expect it."
For Jason Douglas, a San Diego resident attending the auto show Saturday, the automakers using bigger screens are doing it right.
"I love the bigger screens; you've got to have them nowadays," Douglas said. "We're so used to technology getting bigger and bigger, so you kind of expect it out of the cars. Especially if you're paying US$40,000 (RM163,700) or US$50,000 (RM204,625) for the car."
Despite their popularity, in-console "infotainment systems" have inspired questions about safety and driver distractibility. A new study by AAA and the University of Utah, published in July, found that these touchscreen systems can be distracting, especially for older drivers.
On average, older drivers (ages 55-75) using dashboard displays removed their eyes from the road for eight seconds longer than younger drivers (ages 21-36), doing things such as tuning the radio or setting up navigation.
But many automakers are betting that supersized displays will lower distractibility and increase safety. After all, drivers won't be forced to peer at small text or maps while driving.
"A lot of automakers have done eye-tracking studies and found that looking down at a smaller screen is more distracting," said Marler.
That's why infotainment screens have gotten larger and higher in the field of vision, she said, to keep things like navigation in the line of sight.
Safety aside, not all consumers are sold.
"The tablet, to me, seems like too much," said Teresa Collier, who was checking out the Ford Explorer on display. "I worry there's going to be more electrical problems, to be honest. It's not my thing."
Janya Warmuth, who was perusing the Mazda CX-9, said she thought the exact same thing.
"I mean it looks like an iPad or something," Warmuth said. "If something happens with the electronics, you can't see all the dials. And I just don't like the look of it."
With more than 400 vehicles from 25 car makers on display, the San Diego auto show is the 10th largest in the country. The Union-Tribune is one of the show's primary sponsors.
The show, which cost US$15 (RM61) for a general admission ticket, was held Jan 1-5. – The San Diego Union-Tribune/Tribune News Service
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