As much ink has been spilled over the Tesla Model 3 in the past two weeks, we actually don't know much about it. In fact, we know shockingly little! That's exactly how Elon Musk likes it, I think. Mystery feeds hype, after all — and having attended the Model X and Model 3 launch events, I can tell you that Musk loves being surrounded by hyperventilating superfans. Considering the amazing things his companies have accomplished recently, I can't say I blame him. Keeping Model 3 details light also gives Tesla more wiggle room to change the car as it's engineered and validated over the next year and a half.
One of the most mysterious elements of the car is the dashboard, which has absolutely no detail of import — no display, no control, anything — other than a single 15-inch touchscreen mounted in the center. That means there's no instrument cluster, among other totally normal things you'd expect to find in a normal car.
Production vehicles without driver-mounted instrument clusters aren't unheard of (take the Prius, for instance), but they're relatively rare. And whenever I drive these cars, I always miss the cluster, 100 percent of the time, without fail. There are great reasons why critical information has historically been presented very near the driver's field of view, it turns out.
One theory (my theory, in fact!) is that the Model 3 lacks a traditional dashboard because the vehicle is going to be heavily skewed toward self-driving functionality, where driving information like speed and charge level become less important. But assuming the Model 3 really does start hitting streets in 2017 — or, let's be pessimistic, 2018 — full-time autonomy certainly won't be a reality. Even in the outside chance Tesla is ready, regulators and infrastructure certainly will not be. And on those regular occasions when you're driving the car yourself, you'll still have to side-eye that big screen to see how fast you're going.
The funny thing is that some companies are going in the polar opposite direction. Take Audi, which has leaned heavily into its so-called virtual cockpit that first debuted on the third-generation TT a couple years ago. On the TT and the R8 supercar, Audi has completely replaced controls in the center stack with a single LCD in place of the traditional instrument cluster. The idea is twofold: one, it cleans up the dashboard, which is particularly important on a sports car with a tight cockpit that's going for a sleek look. Two, it brings all of the car's controls into the driver's line of sight.
I had a chance to use a TT Roadster for a few days recently, the first time I've used the virtual cockpit in a real driving environment. Verge columnist (and seasoned automotive journalist) Jason Harper doesn't like the system; in his recent review of the R8 at Daytona, he wrote, "There’s simply too much information in a modern car to be handled by a single screen, forcing you to toggle through various screens to access information. It is distracting and non-intuitive." I see exactly where he's coming from; trying to shoehorn virtually every single one of a high-tech vehicle's many settings and functions into a display the size of a normal instrument cluster is messy, at best. But for all the virtual cockpit's rough edges, I found that I liked it — in fact, it reaffirmed for me why we need instrument clusters in the first place, despite what Tesla may think.
You have a really great map right in front of you at all times
The big value proposition for me, as someone who can basically get lost in his own home, is having Google Maps front and center. I've never liked having to glance to the right, often to a display obscured by the glare of sunlight pouring in through the windshield, to see a nav system. Virtual cockpit gets the map right in between the digital speedometer and tach; with a press of a button, you can make those gauges smaller to expand the map. And the TT's live, connected maps (via LTE) give you some reasonable assurance that the data is up to date.
And really, beyond entering nav destinations, that's about all I'd ever need to fiddle with the instrument cluster for. Once in a blue moon, you change a core vehicle setting — daytime running lights, what have you — and you can mostly manage the radio through the dedicated knob. Otherwise, you have a really great map right in front of you at all times. I actually felt a little more confident driving having it right in front of me like that. It's a little laggy at times, which is bothersome considering that a car doesn't need to worry about battery life the same way a smartphone does. Just throw more power at the processor, right? It's a lot more bearable than some systems I've used, but I feel like the time has come for all of these in-car UIs to be glass-smooth in normal use.
No thank you.
In the TT, HVAC controls are cleverly embedded in the centers of the vents on the dash, so you don't need to navigate through some sort of user interface just to change the cabin temperature. The tunnel between the car's seats also has a dedicated radio volume and power knob. But beyond that, you work through the instrument cluster: browsing media, selecting a navigation destination, tweaking vehicle settings, and so on. Like many automakers, Audi also has a selection of "connected" apps built into the system, but I'm not sure anyone seriously uses these — do I really need Twitter in my instrument cluster? — and I'd rather just standardize around CarPlay and Android Auto for that sort of thing anyway.
Speaking of that, Audi supports CarPlay and Android Auto on some models, but not on the TT, probably in part because there's no display to put it on. This is such a big problem, actually, that I expect future redesigns of the TT and R8 to reintroduce a center stack of some sort; CarPlay and Android Auto aren't necessarily deal-breakers for buyers today, but they will be eventually. The lack of a center display also makes the front passenger experience a little more boring (and perhaps marginally less safe, since the driver can't ask the passenger to type in a destination while driving). Granted, the TT and R8 are driver-oriented cars; other Audi models with more cabin space, like the redesigned A4, have a center display in addition to the virtual cockpit.
Audi is far from the only automaker to use a digital instrument cluster; what's unique with the TT is that it's the only display in the cabin, and I came away pretty happy with it on balance. With a center display augmenting it, it'd be even better. And there are plenty of other automakers doing that already — including Tesla itself, which uses a very nice digital cluster on the pricier Model S and X.
The right move is for everyone to move to digital, multifunction clusters
It's possible that Tesla will unveil either a proper cluster or a heads-up display (HUD) for the Model 3 by the time we see the final production vehicle. A HUD would certainly help, but it's not a perfect replacement. For one, a HUD doesn't show a map for navigation — it's too busy and obstructs too much of the driver's view of the road — so it falls back to turn-by-turn directions. I find that turn-by-turn doesn't work very well for me, particularly in urban areas where "Turn Right" could mean turn right at any one of three closely spaced streets.
Basically, the right move is for everyone to move to digital, multifunction clusters in addition to whatever else they may have in mind. In Tesla's case, perhaps it's a big touchscreen on a floating mount, but for something like the Toyota Prius, it could be a powertrain efficiency monitor up by the windshield. Whatever. I just need my map in front of me.