It’s long been a debate amongst auto enthusiasts: simple and clean, or complex and fancy? When it comes to the dashboard, it’s a hard question to answer. Some will argue that a complicated and overwhelming array of dash controls is reminiscent of a fighter jet; there’s something to be said about a pilot who can seamlessly master all of those controls while keeping control of the vehicle. On the other hand, all of those buttons, knobs, and switches just look so ugly and cluttered. The argument between more and less seems far too personal and opinion based to tackle with simple persuasion. What’s the solution, then? Science.
To illustrate the sharp contrast between both sides of the dashboard spectrum, the Porsche Panamera and the Tesla Model S were chosen as the main subjects of this article. The reason: they’re about as different in interior design taste as it gets, yet, so similar. Both the Model S and the Panamera are in the Luxury Sedan class, both sport Italian leather interiors, and both cost more than I can afford. Once you get to the dash, however, all similarities end.
The Panamera is Porsche’s new take on their classic coupes. Every aspect of their typical two-door model of car is somehow incorporated into the Panamera. One could argue that Porsche wanted to keep the culture it has developed for itself largely intact; critics had argued that a four door Porsche just wasn’t a Porsche. But they’ve done it, and it’s turned out quite well. When it comes to the interior, the Panamera is about as classic and conservative as they come. The leather comes in whatever color you’d like, as long as it’s tan. And the dashboard, well, it’s….busy. Every single function has its own button. Every. Single. Function. But is this such a bad thing?
The Tesla, on the other hand, is refreshing. The Model S is arguably the first cool, stylish, and reliable Electric Vehicle (EV) to come into the automobile scene. In a time when the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt are struggling to stay on the market, the Model S had been on backorder since 2009. Tesla bases their whole design on technological marvel, so why should the dashboard be any different? At the heart of the Model S dash lies a 17 inch touchscreen display, and absolutely nothing else. Every feature of the vehicle, from changing the radio station to turning on the climate control is manipulated from this single, high tech interface. The only button you’ll find anywhere near the dashboard is the hazard switch, and it’s probably only there as per some regulation in the state of California. Does it make sense now why the Model S is being compared to the Panamera?
Now that we’re familiar with our contestants, let’s get down to business. Is there really any way to determine which design style is “better”? The type of interior you prefer may be rooted deeply in personal ideals, but we can look to design theory to give us some ideas about what’s generally a good idea and what might not be. We’ll take a look at the Panamera first.
As mentioned earlier, Porsche took the classical route with the Panamera’s interior. The Panamera has as many buttons as functions, and while it may be overwhelming, it might not actually be a bad thing. The reasoning behind this? Complexity. Complexity is commonly split into two types. There’s visual complexity (which the Panamera has plenty of) and then there’s operational complexity. The catch is that minimizing one maximizes the other. In the case of the Porsche, though it might be visually overwhelming and awfully complex, it’s actually very operationally simple. Want the AC on? Reach over and press the button. Want it in sport mode? There’s a switch for that. The simplicity of operation goes hand-in-hand with user memory. Very quickly, a driver will remember by muscle memory where the controls for an often-used function are. Making changes on the fly becomes a second nature, with almost no brainpower spared on navigating to the control. What’s the outcome of this design? Though one might be initially displeased with the seemingly unnecessary amount of buttons, knobs, and switches, operation of the controls is very straightforward and requires very little work other than initially searching for the button one needs. There’s also the issue of immediate visibility. There’s no question to what features your shiny new Porsche comes with….because they’re all sitting in front of you, on their own little button. It’s easy to remember that the vehicle comes with a sport mode when the Sport button is just begging to be pressed.
No argument is complete without a counter argument, and that’s what the Tesla does best. It screams positive change and throws the most basic of automotive constraints out the window (cough, *gasoline*, cough), so don’t think for a second Tesla would be content with putting a “basic” or “boring” interior in their vehicle.
If the Panamera is at one end of the complexity curve, the Model S is as far away as can be. A switch for every single feature has been replaced with a single touchscreen that does them all. What’s this mean for a user? The interior looks pretty, since it’s visually about as simple as it can be. Any simpler, and the features just wouldn’t be included. This comes at a cost, though, as the operational complexity of the Model S is massive. When the driver is listening to the radio and wants to turn it down, they must navigate from menu to menu until the control they’re looking for is reached. It’s easy to imagine that a user needs to be good at multitasking if they want to operate a Model S. There’s overhead associated with finding a specific control; the operator needs to take their eyes off of the road in order to make sure they’re moving through the menus correctly. Contrary to the Panamera, the Tesla’s large array of menus can bury the more subtle functions. It might not be totally obvious that you can turn off the in-seat air conditioning, for example, because the option to do so is deep inside several menus.
How does Tesla ensure that the Model S isn’t touchscreen hell? Simple. They just made it bigger. 17 inches is large enough to put several independent sets of controls on the display, so a user can change the temperature of the climate control whilst still viewing their route on the navigation system. Tesla cleverly structures their menus so that the relevant controls are displayed, while unnecessary ones are hidden. A dynamic system is responsible for keeping the visual complexity to a minimum, while also reducing the operational complexity. When you’ve got control of these things in software (rather than a real, physical switch), you can cheat the complexity curve, and that’s exactly what Tesla is aiming to do.
The last area where both of these designs vary greatly is in the area of feedback. Feedback is paramount to a good user experience. In the Panamera, the user can simply feel for the mechanical “click” of the button or switch and know it’s been activated or vice versa. When interacting with a touchscreen, there is no immediate mechanical indicator that an action went through successfully. The display on the Model S plays a sound, but there’s something crucial about that satisfying pop that’s still missing.
So, what’s the verdict? In a world where rapidly advancing technology is quick to replace anything and everything in it’s path, the Model S seems like it should have the arguably “better” dashboard. In the same way the iPhone has replaced all but the most stubborn QWERTY keyboard phones with real keys, the Tesla seems poised to upend the design of car interiors. However, by using the ideas and concepts of intelligent design, it becomes apparent that the visual simplicity is hiding an ocean of operational complexity. The Porsche, which at first glance seems archaic with its overwhelming amount of controls, actually might still have the upper hand. In the end, the ability to reach out and find a familiar control without sparing a second thought might outweigh the clean, buttonless design of the Model S. Though, I have to say, the Model S does a better job of eradicating buttons and knobs that I could have ever imagined.
It’s almost usable.