A Tale Of Two Dashboards

In May this year, I rented a car. That, by itself, isn’t newsworthy of course, but two things on the dashboard caught my eye and have bugged me ever since. This is what the dashboard looks like:

ImageThe most obvious source of annoyance to me is the fuel gauge. Why would anyone design a fuel indicator that is NOT symmetrical? The amount of ambiguity given by what should be a straightforward visual indicator is just… wrong. When the shaded are is halfway down from the top, do I have half the fuel left or less than half? Because the area (and therefore the volume) of the part above the halfway line is more than the part below. This is even more critical in cars that don’t have a range display that tells you how far you could go on your remaining fuel. As it is the range display has never been the most accurate one amongst car dashboards, so why sully the one indicator that is supposed to be a direct measurement?

Then there is that little break at the bottom of the indicator. Why is it there? Does it mean the car is now using its reserve fuel? But that seems to be an awful lot of fuel to be part of the reserve. But then again I can’t tell because I don’t know if the shaded area indicates the volume of the tank or if it is just for show.

The second annoying thing is far more subtle. The speedo looks fine and dandy till you try and read the numbers manually in your head. 10, 20, 30…. 70, 80, 100…

…wait a minute.

After 80 mph, the numbers jump by twenty instead of ten. This seems inconsequential especially since the speed limit on British roads is 70 mph, but there are three things that are wrong about this.

Imagine a scenario where the speed of the traffic is generally fluctuates between 70 and 80 mph. This can and does happen (though I’m not saying I’ve ever speeded, no sir). Your eyes, through driving so far, have cottoned on to the fact that every division between significant numbers is two miles per hour. When you drive over the top of a hill and your speed temporarily goes higher with the help of gravity, you are inclined to let it pass – you’ll slow down at the bottom anyway, and what’s the issue, you’re only going at 84 or 86 instead of 80.

Except you aren’t, you’re doing more than 90 now. You’re at a speed where you should be keeping even more distance between yourself and the car in front of you, never mind that fact that you’re at least 20 over the limit.


Secondly, why would the makers of the car do this in the first place? This sudden change in scaling surely causes more problems in translating wheel speed to pointer position (because the pointer now has to move lesser arcs for the same speed). This means that you’ve introduced a source of possible failure in your speed indication, not a good idea.

The only answer that I can think of is to put a fake “top” speed on the dial. At 10 mph per division, the highest number this dial could show was 120. But through trickery now you can suddenly see that the car can do 160! Woohoo! Never mind that the only way this small hatchback would’ve done 160 is if it was dropped out of a C-17 from 30,000 feet.

Third, and lastly, the UK government did at one point consider raising the motorway speed limit to 80. If that happens, drivers of this particular model are going to be in trouble thanks to a sneaky re-scaled display.

And so, when I rented another car two months ago, I was pleasantly surprised to see this:

ImageSimple, clean and no trickery. Can’t go wrong here!

The tendency to want to overcomplicate simple stuff is quite high, especially at the lower end of any product range. We perceive that the only way to beat competition is to make things more complex at the same price point. A bit like how small bed-and-breakfasts and inns offer free WiFi but large hotels charge you for it – you want to show more features when price is the biggest discriminator.

At what cost, though? Seems like design is still an art for those who want to provide the right information and please the customer without resorting to conning them.

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