My oldest son spent this past summer in a "pre-college experience" learning computer game design. After he got back, he showed me an online video of a lecture one of his professors gave at a game designers' conference called DICE Summit 2010. It's on "psychological tricks" in game design and how those tricks are starting to be used in other places. You can watch the whole thing here; it's fascinating, if perhaps a bit nerdy.
For Car Lust purposes, the important part begins at 17:29, when the professor starts talking about computer game design elements appearing in things that are not traditional computer games. At 18:35 or so, he mentions the Ford Fusion Hybrid's dashboard:
...It's got a speedometer, it's got a gas gauge--What are those leaves? What the hell is that? The more gas you save, the more the plant grows. They put a virtual pet in your car, and it changes the way people drive!
As far as I know, the first car to include a system cueing the driver to operate it more efficiently was the first-generation Honda CRX HF. The "HF" version of the CRX was optimized for high gas mileage. Compared to the "DX" version that I had, the HF had a smaller-displacement engine (1.3L rather than 1.5), taller gearing, and narrower low rolling resistance tires--and it was about 100 pounds lighter than the already-featherweight DX. While all of that certainly helped with fuel efficiency, the HF's secret weapon was the "upshift indicator," a yellow arrow in the bank of indicator lights in the center of the instrument panel (circled in the photo at right) which glowed to signal the driver that it was time to shift so the RPMs stayed in the most fuel-efficient range. The upshift indicator helped the HF achieve a mind-bending 49 MPG city/54 highway rating in EPA testing. (This equates to a still-impressive 40/48 under today's stricter methodology.)
From there, it just got better. The late-80s Buick Reatta "personal luxury" two-seater had a Jim-dandy twenty-minutes-into-the-future touchscreen interface which included a trip computer to figure out your gas mileage. By the early 1990s, trip computers that could figure your gas mileage were becoming common even in relatively lowball rides.
Today we have small, high-res color LCD screens (originally developed for cellphones and PDAs) that can be made to fit right into a dashboard, and the computing horsepower available to drive them in real time. That allows for even more elaborate instrument panel designs. The Ford Fusion's "SmartGauge" can be configured to display fuel economy statistics and other geeky technical details using bar graphs and simulated gauges, at whatever level of detail the customer wants.
What's new is the little greenhouse computer game on the right hand side of the instrument cluster. Though less detailed than a set of bar graphs, the "leaf" display is more engaging. As one of Ford's engineers, quoted in Motor Trend, explained:
It's a little like playing Guitar Hero or one of the Wii sports games, where your physical motions translate into events on the game screen. Instead of a plastic guitar with buttons in place of strings, or a Wii Remote, you're using the gas and brake pedals as your game controller. Your reward for playing well isn't getting your name on the high scores screen or bragging rights on X-Box Live; rather, it comes at the gas pump.
The Chevy Volt has something similar: a screen with a spinning ball graphic just to the right of the speedometer. If you're driving at your most efficient, the ball turns a happy shade of green and floats in the center of the screen, as you can see in the photo at right. Go heavy on the gas pedal like I do, and it turns yellow and moves up; too much brake (in other words, you're wasting inertia) and it turns red and moves down. As with the Fusion, if you choose to play along with the videogame, success at making the screen image happy means you're driving in an efficient manner.
I don't have anything nearly as elaborate as that in the GTI. There's just a monochrome red video information screen in the center of the instrument panel that has multiple display modes. A few weeks after I got the car, I finally discovered the fuel economy displays: instantaneous MPG, trip-average MPG, and what seems to be a "rolling average" MPG. Instantaneous mode is kind of fun for a while: lay into the throttle and get the turbocharger screaming and you can pull it down into single digits; roll down a hill at highway speed in "Georgia overdrive" (or even just lay off the gas on a long downgrade) and you can push it well above a hundred.
After the novelty of that wore off, I settled on trip-average mode as my default setting. Not long after I did that, I noticed that my average MPG (as measured by the "roling average" mode, and confirmed by doing the math every time I filled up) was going up. I wasn't consciously trying to get a "high score," but I am convinced that just having the number displayed there was subconsciously affecting my driving style. When I decide to actively pay attention to it, I can do even better. Most mornings, if the traffic is flowing smoothly, I can usually "score" between 29.5 and 33.1 MPG on my 25-mile morning commute without resort to fancy hypermiling techniques.
One morning not too long ago, my son drove me to work in the GTI. I noticed that he got it up to 35.0 MPG. These kids today and their videogaming....
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The closeup of the center "dummy light" panel from a CRX HF came from Sonny's 1st Gen CRX Page. The other images are manufacturer's publicity photos.