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.
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.
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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