Ever since Tesla helped popularize the idea of putting giant touchscreens in the dashboards of cars, digital displays have taken up increased amounts of real estate in modern vehicles. These screens have mutated in size, shape, and location as automakers tried to differentiate their offerings. Perhaps the weirdest result yet is what you’ll find on the newly revamped 2021 Cadillac Escalade.
Cadillac teased the new Escalade’s screen... situation back in December with a murky image of the driver’s seat side of the dashboard. The automaker said there would be “over 38 inches diagonal of total display,” leading many to believe (myself included!) that there would be one 38-inch panel.
Instead, there’s actually two curved glass panels stacked in front of the driver, which together house three discrete OLED displays that add up to around 38 inches of screen real estate.
It’s a bit of a bizarre idea, though it somehow felt a little less strange in person when I got to see the new Escalade up close this week in New York City.
First, the OLED displays are all made by LG, meaning there’s a fairly direct link between the 2021 Escalade and the prototype rolling screen the South Korean conglomerate showed off all the way back at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show. Cadillac told me that it worked closely with LG to figure out exactly how far it could push the curve of the displays, to the extent that its execs were bending pieces of paper on conference room tables in the earliest meetings.
The most important screen for any driver of the new Escalade is the 14.2-inch digital instrument cluster that sits just behind the steering wheel. It’s where speed or other basic driving information shows up, and like many other modern digital instrument clusters, the one on the new Escalade is modestly customizable. You can toggle it between a full-bleed map, a “night vision” mode that leverages an infrared camera, an augmented reality view that overlays turn-by-turn directions on a live camera feed, or a more traditional three-pane information display (the layout of which is also customizable, to a degree).
This digital instrument cluster display occupies its own panel separate from the larger one behind it that dominates half the dashboard. The two are separated by a mostly negligible gap, and each panel is lined with stitched leather and ringed with silver piping.
While the rear panel has one continuous piece of curved glass, it features two separate displays. On the left side (and to the left of the instrument cluster) is a smaller 7.2-inch display that can show trip information or average fuel mileage. It’s also where the driver can change the mode the instrument cluster is in (maps, AR maps, etc.).
To the right of everything is the 16.9-inch infotainment touchscreen. Setting aside the unique design, and the fact that this curved OLED screen is part of a larger curved structure, it’s a relatively normal infotainment touchscreen. It’s where the driver will be able to play around with different media like the radio or SiriusXM, engage with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, or tap through vehicle information and settings. Its layout is also customizable. You can tap and hold on any app icon to move it around. The same action is how you customize the four-panel “Home” screen.
One thing I like about the Escalade’s setup: the company decided to separate the cabin climate controls from the touchscreen experience. Instead of burying them in some menu, or relegating the settings to a touchscreen that you need to look at to confidently make any adjustments, the temperature controls have their own dedicated row below the display — with physics buttons! How novel. Cadillac put a set of knobs in the center console, too, which can be used to control the infotainment system if you don’t want to fuss with the touchscreen. Somehow this all didn’t feel as overwhelming as, say, the inside of a modern Mercedes-Benz, which has lots of buttons, lots of screens, and often a touch-sensitive pad or dial.
While I only had a few minutes with the user interface, it was easy to see this is not some radical rethink of how infotainment systems should work. That’s notable because a lot of other automakers who are stuffing big screens in their cars are trying to use all that extra real estate as an excuse to try out new user interface paradigms or put different types of media on display.
Chinese EV startup Byton, which is putting a 48-inch, pillar-to-pillar display in its first vehicle, has promised that screen can be used for watching movies, making video conference calls, and even viewing PowerPoint presentations. (All while parked, to be clear.) Honda went with a similar (but shorter) dashboard-spanning screen in the Honda E, its new city-focused electric car. Honda’s also touted the ability to watch movies on this screen (while parked), and it even has an HDMI port, meaning you can plug in anything from a Chromecast to an SNES Mini.
Cadillac isn’t taking things that far, despite what the massive new three-screen setup might imply on looks alone. (Though it does have 12.6-inch screens on the back of each headrest for rear-seat passengers, and those have HDMI and USB inputs.) That said, the new Escalade is still putting a lot of screen real estate directly in front of the driver, which will require a bit of an adjustment period. The upside is I could easily see over the displays while sitting in the driver’s seat; in fact, it didn’t even obstruct my view of the SUV’s hood. That’s a good thing considering how this is a very large vehicle that puts pedestrians at greater risk.
The new Cadillac Escalade is the latest big-name vehicle to go all-in on screens. Porsche’s first EV, the Taycan, is covered in displays. Ford’s new Mustang Mach-E also features a big digital instrument cluster and a large portrait tablet protruding from the dashboard. Mercedes-Benz has been pushing big infotainment screens in its vehicles for years. These companies have not only gotten comfortable with the screen-forward paradigm Tesla started pushing a decade ago, but it’s increasingly obvious that they think these displays are a window into a world where more money can be made off of services sold to the people inside their cars.
There are genuine concerns about how much this increases the mental load on drivers, especially since distracted driving seems to keep increasing. But now that even the Escalade is going to be full of screens, it seems silly to keep asking whether this is the future of the in-car experience. There’s really no way around it at this point. Instead, the questions we should be asking these car companies are: how they’re limiting distracted driving; what they’re doing to make it easier to deal with the fussiness of a touchscreen; what benefits we’re getting back as consumers; and what we’re giving up in return as cars increasingly take on the physical qualities of a smartphone.
Photography by Sean O’Kane / The Verge