When Model S hit the streets in 2012, it was “the myth-busting electric car,” as Consumer Reports puts it. It was the first electric vehicle to offer a combination of performance, style and interior space, along with innovative features such as frunk and, later, autopilot. However, the feature that seemed to attract the most attention from the press and the public was its huge touchscreen.
Even in 2012, automotive touchscreens were far from new. The first ones seem to have been introduced by Buick in 1985 (they proved unpopular with consumers because – you guessed it – they didn’t really work). The screens gradually moved into the lower price segments, and by the time the Model S was launched, they were pretty common features.
However, even at first glance, Tesla’s touchscreen was obviously a whole different animal. Not only were the screens of regular vehicles much smaller, they tended to control only the stereo (“infotainment” was not yet a buzzword) and air conditioning, and they still didn’t work very well. In fact, even today the touchscreen seems to inspire derision – as recently as last year, the bad guys at Jalopnik, Automobile and Popular Mechanics wrote that the automatic touchscreen is “a failure” that “must disappear ”(oddly, none of these articles mentions Tesla).
Well, as Sean Szymkowski writes on CNET’s Road Show, touchscreens aren’t going away. In fact, as automakers rush to copy everything Tesla is, its analog gauges that may soon follow the path of the rear fins. Szymkowski cites a report from ABI Research which predicts that Tesla-style 12-inch and larger displays, with AI-powered “virtual assistants” will spread from luxury models to most mainstream vehicles here. 2030.
Examples of the trend are not hard to find. The new Mercedes S-Class 2021 has a horizontal display behind the steering wheel for the instruments and a larger vertical display that handles the 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 of the vehicle’s functions, although it forgoes a large Tesla-style display in favor of sleek smaller screens located where you’d expect the buttons. and buttons are. The new Jeep Grand Wagoneer concept has screens everywhere – the dashboard consists of three screens, and even the rear passengers get two each, one on the seatback 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 plastered screens all over the interior and exterior.
Amid all the screaming on the screens, many observers miss the most important point: It’s not the size of Tesla’s screen that makes it revolutionary – rather, it’s the fact that it’s the A central computer user interface (known in the trade as an electronic control unit, or ECU) that controls all aspects of vehicle operation. Legacy vehicles have many 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) Tesla Story, 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 are electronics and software, ”Wright told me. “I think Tesla took a real Silicon Valley systems architecture perspective when designing all of the Model S electronics.” Among other benefits, the integrated approach means that, as technology improves, features can be upgraded quickly and smoothly through over-the-air updates.
Above: Tech companies like Samsung present their take on the digital cockpit (YouTube: Samsung Newsroom)
Mainstream automakers have been slow to follow Tesla’s lead by introducing integrated systems. However, ABI Research believes that will change. “A single ECU will control everything from front and rear seat infotainment, advanced driver assistance functions, digital instrument panel and more in the future,” writes Szymkowski. Companies like Nvidia and Qualcomm, which specialize in the type of processors used in automotive ECUs, are likely to thrive.
All of these large screens are the visual aspect of a powerful trend in connectivity. Again, Tesla didn’t invent this concept – GM introduced its OnStar service, which provides subscription communications, emergency services, navigation, and remote diagnostics, in 1996. However, the connectivity features from Tesla appear to be light years beyond anything other automakers have to offer. Tesla is the only automaker to date that can activate substantial new features via OTA (over-the-air) updates.
However, just as they copy Tesla’s eye-catching big screen, other OEMs are also pushing to improve their connectivity games. Volvo and Lucid, among others, have EVs in the pipeline that will feature OTA capabilities, and Ford says it will start adding that feature to redesigned vehicles this year.
Catching up with the connectivity game could be an existential problem. Big Auto’s worst nightmare is becoming a supplier of a low margin commodity as young tech companies provide the profitable add-ons. In January, Sony embarrassed the auto industry by showcasing an EV concept 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, mainstream automakers have failed to deliver truly useful connectivity features. “As a result of this design and communication failure, manufacturers risk forfeiting massive revenue and profit streams to high-tech companies like Google and Apple.”
Winton quotes a recent report by consultancy firm Capgemini Invent: “The only major automaker to handle connectivity in a user-friendly and smart way is Tesla, which has the advantage of selling its vehicles to early adopters of expensive advanced technologies that may be to explore the nuances of hands-free driving, radar cruise control, driverless parking, driver coaching, and even some overly complicated methods of finding radio stations.
Report author Rainer Mehl believes it’s not too late for the legacy automobile to enter the Tesla league before Sony, LG and Alibaba eat their corporate lunches. “Traditional manufacturers need to catch up and get better with these services,” Mehl told Winton, adding that they need to partner with other automakers. “Tech companies are starting to come between the customer and the car, and automakers need to stand up for that. If you cede ground to the tech player, you will no longer be in control of the client. ”
Written by: Charles Morris