The Spectrum Meets in the Middle

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A luxury car isn’t defined solely by its luxury. What makes it so is that most people can’t afford it. If almost anyone can, then it isn’t.

This may become a problem for luxury car makers like Mercedes-Benz (and it’s not just Mercedes) who’ve gone all-in on flat-screens, not just for the main gauge cluster but for everything.

The reason it may prove to be a problem is that unlike fine leather and real wood and carbon fiber trim, electronics are cheap – and getting cheaper. If you have been in a new car showroom recently you will probably have noticed this. $20,000 Toyotas and Mazdas have flat screens now. Some have big ones, without the big price tag to go with. This is possible because a plastic (or even glass-faced) touchscreen is fundamentally inexpensive, unlike fundamentally expensive things like fine, hand-fitted leather seats, real wood and carbon fiber trim.

It is improbable those things will ever be available in $20k-ish cars because it would make them cost a great deal more than $20k-ish and then they would be luxury cars.

But plastics and the electronics behind the screen? You can buy a $40 smartphone that has all that and it’s no great leap forward – or expense – to make the screen larger.

An all-touchscreen gauge cluster and secondary display was luxurious a decade ago  just because only luxury cars had them, which made the having exclusive, which is the thing people who spend luxury car money are after. Not many of them are willing to part with $50,000-plus to have what their neighbor – who spent $20-ish – also has.

Enter the problem. Because many new $20-ish cars do have them and soon – probably within a couple of years at most – almost all of them will have them and for that reason they will no longer be anything special, like power windows and AC.

Which once were luxury car amenities.

It might be smart – for Mercedes, et al – to consider fitting out their luxury cars with things that can’t be made inexpensive – which of course they already do, in terms of such things as fine leather, real wood and carbon fiber trim (among other such things).

But the big flatscreens are becoming the visual centerpieces of all cars, a trend that began with high-end cars but which is now trendy in cars generally. How to recreate the visual separation – as well as the justify the price separation?

One of the things that used to define a luxury car, before the era of the flatscreen or even electronics, was an instrument cluster built on the Rolex model. The works of a fine watch rather than a digital watch. Both keep time. One does it elegantly – and exclusively. Real chrome, machined bezels.

No plastic.

But this probably won’t happen, for two main reasons.

The first is that plastic is cheap – and you can make more money selling it. But the deeper reason – literally – is because electronic displays are connected to electronic things. Modern cars are essentially rolling smartphones at this point and it’s not coincidental that their gauges and displays look and work very much like smartphone screens. It is probably not technically feasible to make mechanical gauges interface with electronic controls.

They would work but would not connect with the rest of the car. Everything in a modern car – luxury or not – is connected.

Or rather, not connected  . . . to anything mechanical.

When you tap and swipe, you are sending a signal through circuits to a computer that activates something mechanical. There is no longer a direct physical connection, like the winding of a Rolex.

From the standpoint of what it can do, all of this electronic, smart phone-emulating stuff is certainly marvelous. Being able to reconfigure the instrument cluster to display whatever you want it to display from an array of options – is science fiction come to life, for anyone who is old enough to remember when the only things that had flatscreens were starships, like the USS Enterprise.

But when a new Corolla or Camry has them, too – it’s no longer particularly luxurious.

Which may become a problem for cars with luxury car price tags.

. . . 

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  1. Ironically, TRUE modern luxury cars may end up going the opposite direction and become SIMPLER than their tech’ed-out counterparts. Thanks to “uncle” and his insane safety and emissions diktats, only the affluent will be able to afford simpler, easier to work on cars (similar to Revology’s Mustangs). As I’ve said numerous times, simplicity is the new luxury.

  2. Technology isn’t for the rich, it’s for the poor. King Louie’s “summer palace” at Versailles had walls of glass, mirrors and immense chandeliers full of candles. And the staff to keep all that stuff clean and the candles trimmed. He didn’t need town gas.

    Queen Victoria’s various homes had plenty of fireplaces, and town gas for light. She didn’t need Mr Edison’s lightbulb.

    Neither needed Mr Daimler’s Reitwagen of course.

    Searching Amazon for emergency candles I found that they can be had for about $8.45, made of paraffin (imagine the cost if using beef tallow). The listing claims the set of 12 will burn for about 60 hours. That’s $0.14/hour and that will only light one candle. Two candles will half that burn time but at least the wife can find her way to the toilet (outhouse?) in the dark.

    Electric lights were a plaything for the nouveau riche. When the mansions in the Hamptons were built they had all the latest gadgets, including powerhouses for the lights. Most of the old money shunned the tech because they didn’t understand it.

    If luxury carmakers were smart they’d be making tricked out limos like the over-the-top conversion vans rappers buy when they get their recording contracts. These vehicles make Gulfstreams look down-market, albeit with some questionable choices when it comes to taste. Or go full resto-mod on the interior, simulating classic “Smiths” style analog gages, complete with their little jiggles and vacuum variances.

  3. And then one day there was a monstrous solar flare, or a high altitude/low orbit nuclear explosion, which fried all the shielding. And the party ended.

  4. 78 mph on the interstate and we must divert our attention to a flat screen for what we used to adjust with our digits.


  5. I followed others and put a Bluetooth transmitter on my OBD port. My tablet, in a RAM mount displays all the data the vehicle produces. Tablet also displays GPS and ToPo maps if I need with a different app. My 2018 4Runner TRD Off road has a screen as well, even displays the weather channel updates. I’ve often embraced technology to get the most capability I can. Of interesting note, with some displays/apps one can make gauges look analog.

  6. I suspect this is all in order to get the sheep used to self driving cars – after all why bother driving when there’s a glorious screen to blindly stare at !!

  7. The solution for the Luxury cars is obvious, right? They will have to do a 180 and become analogue cars, replete with physical switches, dials, and gauges, for THAT will be the symbol of opulence in the future. Think 1960s James Bond Aston Martin. Now who wouldn’t blow a little more coin for one of those?

    • That makes perfect sense when you consider luxury goods are supposed to be timeless rather than slaving to the latest trends.

  8. I guess the new occupation, avocation, of rioter is now an income producing enterprise and you need to file a 1040 with the IRS.

    Beam me up.

    Equip your vehicle with a radio FM/AM, You can buy an FM tuner and use your cellphone for connectivity. It is dumb to have a flat screen readout built into a vehicle’s dashboard. Connect the laptop to it all. Verizon and Google will help you set it up.

    You’ll be followed every inch of the way. Or, not have any of it at all, just be free wheelin’ out there in the great wide open. The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers don’t use cellphones. har

    If something goes wrong with the installed flat screen whatever it is, you’ve got a problem. A pain that can be avoided altogether.

    A cellphone/laptop connected is going to be better.

    I want my two-barrel carburetor six-cylinder everything mechanically connected four wheels pickup truck with a clutch and four gears, one reverse, that will go coast to coast and back again. Stick a radio and heater in the thing, you’ll be good to go. Carry your gear, you can do it.

    Can’t be that difficult a task to accomplish to build brand new.

  9. ‘a plastic (or even glass-faced) touchscreen is fundamentally inexpensive’ — EP

    … if you can get the chip for it, that is.

    Embarrassingly, Huawei chairman Eric Xu has blown the lid off the devastating own goal scored by Orange Man Bad and his dimwitted henchmen Mike ‘Roast Porker’ Pompeo, Robert Lighthizer and Wilbur Ross, when last summer they cut off Huawei’s supply of US-made chips.

    When Huawei’s survival was placed in jeopardy by Washington’s heavy-handed boycott and siege, what the hell did Usgov expect Chinese companies to do? Anybody with half a brain could see this coming:

    ‘Because of the U.S. sanctions against Huawei, we have seen panic stockpiling among global companies, especially Chinese ones. In the past, companies were barely stockpiling, but now they are building up three or six months’ worth of inventory … and that has disrupted the whole system,’ Rotating Chairman Eric Xu said at the company’s 18th Huawei Analyst Summit, the Nikkei reported.

    ‘Clearly the unwarranted U.S. sanctions against Huawei and other [Chinese] companies are creating an industry-wide supply shortage, and this could even trigger a new global economic crisis,’ Xu added.

    Six months down the road — about the lead time you’d expect, if you actually knew a damned thing about manufacturing supply chains — production of cars, trucks, LCD displays, smart phones, and appliances is grinding to a halt owing to dire shortages of relatively basic commodity chips.

    Trade warrioring fool Orange Man Bad, fecklessly trying to wing China, ended up blowing both his own bone-spurred feet off with a 12-gauge shotgun. And the potted plant now impersonating the president, Joe Xiden, sure as hell isn’t going to fix it with the US and China approaching war over Taiwan.

    Hell, China Joe can’t even stabilize the price of low-tech lumber — ‘dumb as a 2×4’ — as its price flings skyward like a magma blast from La Soufriere, including a $32 limit-up move yesterday (chart):

    Got wood chips?

    • The problem Trump pointed out is that US business scored the “own goal” a couple decades ago with “rightsizing” and “just in time” inventory. It’s so economically efficient to squeeze everything immediately unprofitable out of the system- skilled labor and talent, inventory which only matters to the customer being the primary examples.

      Efficiency is the enemy of effectiveness, and every decision is a compromise. And now with the supply chain is in chaos due to the intentional destruction of economies, lives, and markets by those who wish to rule the world and the (few inhabitants they choose to allow to live) absolutely. And resources are unavailable due to tyranny, not actual scarcity.

      China is an adversary and Trump was right in doing what he could to change the ascendant trajectory of China at the expense of the American people.

      • I agree, Ernie –

        It’s just too bad Trump enabled the weaponization of hypochondria. Or wasn’t smart enough not to see what it would mean – for him and for us.

        • And that mein freund was the real own goal. I’m not going to bash the guy for losing to ruthless and evil opponents targeting his germophobia and ego problems. But he definitely did get taken on that and more importantly on not attacking the election fraud head on.

          He underestimated his opponents badly. He not only said but seemed to believe that “Chuck and Nancy are good people”. And that was not only a crime, but worse a blunder.

  10. Keep your stupid flat screen. I can’t stand them in new cars, and don’t have one, so I’m luckily not bothered by them too often. They are a distraction, and a PITA to use.

    Give a a nice looking set of analog gauges. Something where I can see the engine RPM’s smoothly increase along with the speed of the vehicle.

    Give me a parking brake I can engage with my hand or foot, and actually feel it doing something, and not some stupid lever I flip on and off.

    Give me mechanical controls for the heating system. Something I can move back and forth, up and down. Something I can “feel” working.

    Give me a key I insert into a switch, turn it, and start the car, not some damn button you need to press.

    Give me a radio where I can mechanically tune the radio to even weak faraway stations that might not have a strong enough signal to even register on these new digital radios that are a PITA to tune. Give a a simple button on the radio I pull out and press back in to have the radio remember the exact position to tune to for stations you always listen to.

    I’m sure I could think of many more things I would want in car which are sadly unavailable in any new car currently being sold. What I need is a nice old car from the late 60’s early 70’s. I must be showing my age, lol.

    • “Give me a key I insert into a switch, turn it, and start the car, not some damn button you need to press.”

      I’ll go one further, give me a shift nob to pull down on the steering wheel or back on the console. If i see a dial or buttons for the transmission i don’t even want to look at the vehicle. Looking for used Trucks of all the 16 or newer Ram’s have a dial transmission. That is a hard pass for me.

      • The dial thing was an issue for me too but only for a couple months. It eventually became second nature and don’t even have to look for it anymore.
        I still would prefer a handle/shifter, etc… but it’s not a big deal (to me). Everything I like is awesome, just compromises. My wife and I took a 4hr trip in the ram yesterday, and she said “this thing rides like an old boat from the 70’s, and is the most comfortable vehicle we have ever owned”. This is after going across the million bad bridge crossings on Rt 80 in the East that make most cars/trucks cringe. Yup, love it, dial or no dial. Pick your poison, haha..

    • Agree on most of that R2L. However a few things I really like are auto climate as I never have to touch it again. And I can remote start my truck and it is nice when I get in, biggie. My biggest like is auto windshield wipers. It used to be a pet peeve of mine turning them on and off a millions times, and constantly changing things with either a mist, or passing a semi, etc… Then delay wipers helped but still a PITA to me. So much so that when I was in engineering school I came with an idea to ‘automate’ wipers. Actually went to the local Patent office (pre-internet) to see if I had something. I didn’t, there were lots of patents and a few around my idea. Now they are common (using my idea, that I didn’t have first, haha).
      Manual or analog everything else would be OK with me.

    • Only things I really like are cruise control (for long highway trips in good weather), and Bluetooth. I also like it when I can change the stereo from the steering wheel (this is actually an older feature than most people think it is).

      I would rather do without the rest. And naturally aspirated, thanks.

      I enjoy shifting it myself. I would prefer a lever-style handbrake.

      I usually have gauges for gas & coolant temp. I would also like a gauge for battery amperage, and one for oil level.

    • Amen brother Rush- preach it! Everything I want in a car is 20 years or more out of fashion and I’m fine with that. Unfortunately the coming market is the brain dead cell phone programmed generations, and that’s why all the cell phones on wheels are now marketed to colored females, androgonyous or openly queer males, or whatever group the manipulators are trying to make cool.

      Sell your very soul to the machine, keep buying your electronic gizmos and disposable cars on endless payments, and then be so dependent on your corporate master and its’ HR Grrlz that you can never quit and live in fear of being laid off or fired. Someday they will wake up and look forward to dying and going to hell because they are used to it already.


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