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Dashboard Videogames

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.

Hey! There's vines on my dashboard!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 we all know, computers have been increasing their capabilities a furious pace. It's pretty easy to see this in your desktop PC (remember DOS? 5.25 floppies? sub-gigabyte hard drives? Flight Simulator 4?), but it's been happening in your automobile, too. It's to the point where a base-model Hyundai Accent has more computing power than Neil Armstrong's lunar module, and factory stereos have 30GB hard drives. It's only natural that someone would take advantage of all this computing power to give the driver more information on how efficient the car is.

CRX HF dummy lightsAs 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:

We wanted to create an emotional connection between the car and its occupants, an instant 'reward' for driving efficiently. At first, we tried an entire forest, but that was too much. Customers liked just a few vines of leaves much better.

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.

Volt instrument panel closeup

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.


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Perhaps it is a bit like a game - the Odyssey has a nifty graphic that gives average MPG in big bold numbers (I set it to automatically reset when I fill up) and current MPG as a bar graph. It's kinda cool that when the ECO light comes on (cylinder deactivation, and some electronic manipulation of the transmission) the current MPG will typically double. If I can get 20 MPG around town, it's almost like hitting the jackpot on pachinko.

As if having a 110V AC outlet and RCA inputs in the back seat for a game console wasn't enough.

that was a great article, thanks!

Great article! I owned a 1990 Ford Escort that also had the upshift light (it was a 5 speed). Back then, though, I never computed fuel mileage. As a note, on its maiden long distance voyage, my 2008 Corvette Coupe with LS3 and Six-Speed Automatic got a round trip verifiable mileage of 31.5 from Western Maryland, through the Shenendoah Mountains, down into the Great Smokie Mountains (Maggie Valley, NC) and back home again. Not too shabby for a 6.2L 436 HP v8!

Hate, hate, HATE those things. If I could turn off even those stupid upshift lights, I would. Can.Not.Stand cutesy computers. A display showing a calculated MPG at the moment is fine; that's just information. These things are like the little nanny company wagging its finger at me. Heck, I'd probably drive in first gear all day just to kill the damn display tree if I could.

I used to think having a talking computer would be fun. Now I realize that instead of a supersmart informative HAL 9000 providing data and performance updates we'll be stuck with some dope constantly yammering about how *$*#ing "green" you're driving.

Screw you, FordGMChryslerHondaEtc. I know how to drive and I'll drive in whatever manner seems appropriate, thankyouverymuch.

Rant off.

My 928 has that upshift light thingy. In fact, I think most/all MT cars have something similar. The reason for it I think is that it is part of CAFE testing. The manufacturer programs the light to go on to keep the car in the most efficient part of the powerband.

Of course, with a 928, it's main use is to try and use it as strobelight while heel-and-toeing it around Lime Rock, or to laugh evilly at it while it plaintively begs you to "drive green please" as you maniacally take that twin-cam V8 up to its 6250 rpm redline over and over again.

I'm eventually hoping to drive the car hard enough to get single digit MPG. Best(worst) I've done so far is about 15 on a tank. That's the result of a somewhat-involuntary spasmodic reaction I get on my right leg when I drive that thing.

My father hated the high-beam indicators in his cars, he said they were too bright. He used modelling clay to cover them, except for a tiny dot of light to seep through. He also kept the dash lights turned down about as far as he could at night.

I'm glad he's not driving one of these; I'd never hear the end of his ranting.

I'd have to spend some time with one of these to see if I liked it or not. Back in 1983, I loved the digital dash display on the then-new 300ZX, so I'd have a better-than-even chance of warming up to them, I suppose. But simple gauges are still my favorite dash information providers.

Nice article, Cookie.

I just put a vacuum gauge in the car to help me drive in a more economical manner. Used to get 19 MPG+ in my '67 Chevelle (283 V8, powerglide) on the highway.

In the early eighties, my friend's Mom got a (?) Chrysler, with a high-dollar talking car option. The obscure ones were okay ('your door is ajar'), but the regulars ('please buckle your seat belt' at ignition) got tedious, then torturesome. After a month, she asks her hubby if they can take it into the dealer, have the voice disabled. "But honey! You wanted that feature so much that we *paid extra* for it!"

On the flip side of this coin was the ludicrously oversimplified dash of the '90 Lumina I used to drive. It had a speedometer, an odometer, a gas gauge... and that was about it. It took me half an hour before I realized that, no, there really is no temperature gauge, and no, GM couldn't be bothered to include a trip meter.

The best part was that car followed an '89 Cougar with an absurd digital dash. My favorite part was when I learned that, like its contemporary domestic analog counterparts, its speedometer also maxed out at 85. Then there was the time when the regulator on my alternator went out and the car decided it'd be a blast to pump 16+ V into the dash - that let loose a nice, urgent glow from the console.

Ah, memories.

I would think the more graphics and information on the dash would just be a distraction. There are enough things to take our attention off the road already.

While I'm a sucker for 80s digital dashes, I could care less about these dashes. I agree with Ron The Car Guy, it's just another distraction.

But I do agree with Cookie about unconsciously improving one's gas mileage because there's a number present , like in the overhead console in my '98 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Anthony, you must REALLY hate BMW's iDrive, don't ya, especially on the M5? Well you ain't the only one!

I think I can do one better: My 1981 Buick Riviera has a factory economy light that turns green when you're getting good fuel mileage and turns orange when you're getting bad fuel mileage.

My problem is that I have more fun turning the orange one on rather than keeping the green one lit. So it's not really effective.

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