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Car Screens – Is It a Good Idea, Really?

Elizabeth Uncategorized September 10, 2021

We all know how addictive screens are. And yet, after endless campaigns to get teenagers to stop staring at their screens while driving, we’re introducing cars that practically require it. Why?

The Good

Screens exist basically everywhere. They’re oftentimes a good substitute for analog buttons, as in the case of phone keyboards, and can provide more flexibility and wear-time if the screen is going to be in front of the public, as in self-serve checkout screens in grocery stores. They’re easier to clean and more difficult to break.

However, screens and analog buttons don’t have to be enemies. Some modern cars come with air conditioning that can be set to an exact degree to aim for, but the number of possible answers means a digital readout is required. It gets both a screen and a set of buttons.

Other things necessitate screens if the customer wants them as a feature. You don’t have to have a screen for the radio, the buttons could perform all of the functionalities just fine, but if the customer wants to know the temperature outside, that takes a screen. Plus, that screenless radio would be annoying to select presets for, so they almost universally come with some sort of screen or indicator for the channels. Bigger, more complex car radios with screens can show more information about the broadcast, too!

Some features that help with safety and ease-of-driving come with screens too – backup cameras need a screen to function. There’s no way for that feature to exist without a screen somewhere, so it may as well be in the dashboard of the car.

The Bad

That being said…

Some things are better suited for buttons and physical inputs. Someone can adjust their volume by simply grazing their hand along the surface of the interior dash until they get to the right knob. Trying to do that with analog buttons and a digital readout is also doable – they will be able to both feel and hear the difference (of switching stations) in hitting different buttons, so they’ll eventually be able to land on the right one, as long as their fingers are on the buttons. Doing it with no physical feedback requires taking eyes off the road, otherwise the user doesn’t know if their fingers are even on the buttons on-screen.

Extra features that are useful are also often distracting while on-screen, so it’s not totally the screen’s fault. GPS hooked into the car’s screen makes sense. It’s safer than looking down at the cupholder or blocking off a bit of vision for a suction-cup phone holder on the windshield. However, typing on one is usually a nightmare because the positioning is awkward, right in the middle of the dash, even if the screen is top-of-the-line responsive. Syncing to a phone to use the GPS there, and then BlueTooth it to the screen fixes that problem but creates new problems in it’s wake. Even worse if these things are in separate menus, which means spending time navigating said menu to get to the GPS, Bluetooth hookup, or other assorted features in the first place. All of that should take place before driving – but isn’t it annoying to have to fix all of that up before even leaving? Flipping through the radio was effortless before screens made it more difficult than it needed to be.

Deeply Unnecessary and Largely Unwanted

Bizarrely, automakers also offer options to connect to the internet for reasons beyond simple GPS or music. As The Turning Signal points out, the layers upon layers of menus and features offer a lot of distraction while in the car, and no hierarchy of features. Radio should probably be fewer steps to get to than GPS, for example, because you’re not going to use GPS on every trip you make, but radio is almost always on. Another obvious downside is that if anything goes wrong with the screen itself, you’re trapped with the settings you had when it broke, and that’s really annoying.

Part of this isn’t even due to the screens – it’s because the automaker is desperate to stuff as many features as possible into the car. The sheer number of things a car can do now means even if everything were analog, the user would still be glancing down pretty often just to find the right button for the task. Seat warmers, directional AC, GPS, motorized seats, built in chair massagers??, the heater, turbo heating or cooling, the radio, Bluetooth, etc. etc. would all need their own buttons – multiple buttons for each. If automakers were to make these all real, physical buttons, your dashboard would look like something from Star Wars. It’s too late to go back unless the automaker wants to ditch features that other cars (and their previous cars) still have.

Even Worse

Ford announced plans to beam billboard information directly onto the screen, via a complicated system of computers and AI. While it’s not literally beaming every sign it sees into the car, and it is theoretically possible to shut off, it’s still an awfully ugly statement. The dashboard has become advertising space for billboards that used to be ignorable. A big question will be how it interacts with other apps on-screen. Does it get priority over the radio, or the GPS? Even assuming that’s all sorted, and the customer willingly has the ads open, glancing down to peep at a flash on-screen is a little bit dangerous, is it not? Their reasoning is that the consumer may have missed information they could be interested in. If the information is interesting, that’s worse! That makes the distraction issue worse! The screens are already horribly distracting as they are, with all of the menus and buttons and stuff to dig around in, so having an ad, which is inherently trying to snatch your attention away from what you were doing before you saw it, beamed directly into the car while the driver is driving, is effectively putting revenue above safety. I thought Ford had learned from the Pinto. Apparently not.

Many people jumped on Ford for even suggesting the option. As they should – billboards themselves have gotten into trouble for being too distracting, how beaming directly into the car was supposed to avoid those same issues is anybody’s guess.  

And then there’s things like games and social media apps built into the system. It’s weird anyway, because most people have phones, but whatever. Assuming it has the most basic of safety features built in, and won’t activate if the car is in drive – what’s to stop the driver from shifting into park at every red light to check up on their accounts?

Phones can at least be stuffed into pockets – this screen would have to be disabled.


Different Kinds of Screens

Elizabeth History, Innovation July 14, 2021

There are many different screens. From gigantic vacuum-tube TVs to the flattest of the flat home theater displays, TVs come in all shapes and sizes. Here’s a brief history of the popular ones.

LCD: Liquid Crystal Display – Big Screen, Little Equipment

LCDs, or liquid crystal displays, are what they sound like: liquid crystals are manipulated with an electric current, using a panel behind the crystal panel. Then, an LED panel behind that lights it up so the colors are visible. LCD displays don’t handle heat well, and they’re fragile. You can’t put them next to or above a fireplace, and you can’t clean them with regular cleaners without checking with the TV manufacturer first. You especially can’t drop them. Videos of people running into their TVs with an AR headset on or throwing a Wii remote into the TV during a virtual bowling game demonstrate the spiderweb effect even minor impacts can cause on-screen.

But the screens are getting massive. A more delicate device is a tradeoff many people are fine with making, if the trend of larger, sleeker smartphones is any indication. For example, this projection screen TV (below) is probably the closest someone in the 1980’s could get to the modern flat screen TV. It’s 50 inches, and adjusted for inflation to today, it costed about $3,100’s worth of 1980’s money.

An 82 inch TV from LG currently costs about $1,500 on Amazon. Technology!

LED: Light-Emitting Diodes

Fremont Street in our local Las Vegas is currently the largest LED display in the world, according to both their own site and Wikipedia. LED displays are a common choice for external signs. They’re cheap and easy to manage outdoors, so they’re a great choice for light-up billboards – here in Las Vegas, most casinos have one outside for their advertising. However, since the individual components making up each ‘pixel’ or each little square of colors are pretty large, they’re not usually the first choice for indoor, TV electronics – the gaps between each diode cluster are big enough to be visible, and they put out a lot of light.

OLEDs are becoming more popular as a screen choice because the gaps are eliminated, but if an image is going to be displayed on it long term, they can be prone to ‘burn in’ – where the image becomes permanently etched into the screen. As a result, LCD displays are more popular in cases like digital menus and airport queues.

LEDs don’t have many weaknesses that aren’t also shared by LCD screens – the major one is that screen burning, but for big displays like the Casino signs, that’s not an issue. Panels going out and creating wrong-colored squares in the middle of the board are, but sometimes that’s a wiring thing, not a screen thing.

Plasma Screen

A plasma screen TV works by exciting little pockets of ionized gas to create plasma, which makes colors. These were all the rage for a while, but they’re also sensitive to heat – and when LCDs caught up price-wise, they were cheaper to make and easier to dispose of, so plasma screens dipped in popularity. They’re still high-definition, they’re still sold in stores, so nowadays it comes down to a matter of preference, not price or size.

Rear Projection TV: Big Screen, Big Equipment

These screens were huge, and the speakers were built in to face the viewer at the bottom of the screen. Rear projection TVs were the intermediate step between CRTs and LCDs, and they worked by beaming light from the source of choice to the screen using a system of lenses, magnifying the image. CRTs had reached their max size, but LCD panels weren’t anywhere near large enough by themselves yet – the rear projection TV smoothed the transition between the two while also providing a larger screen than previous TVs. The one I grew up with was gigantic, even at the time we had it. Scratches in the fabric covering the speaker area were the only worry. The TV itself was nigh indestructible, and impossible to knock over without concerted effort – the thing was a cube.

Over time, the screen we had became outdated. It didn’t have enough ports for all the adaptors it would have taken to keep it in line with new plugins – VCRs and DVRs had different requirements, and so did the Xbox and the Xbox 360. Eventually a smaller (but much thinner) screen won out – everything could just be directly plugged into the TV instead of screwing with the jack hydra the rear-projection required. The price of progress.

CRTs and Degaussing

With the development of iron ships, navigators discovered a problem – large quantities of iron could mess with the compass, and other tools relying on the Earth’s magnetic poles to function. Even worse, with WWII on the horizon, the magnetic signature of the ship meant that weapons could be designed around it – underwater mines, specifically, were geared to detect the field and then go off. Degaussing was invented! De-magnetizing the ship meant mines could no longer rely on it as a trigger.

Cathode Ray Tubes displays (or CRT displays for short) are easily disturbed by magnets. The colors turn funny shades when you hold a magnet too close. The same technology used to protect ships was then used to degauss the CRT display and return it to its former full color glory! Eventually, degaussing coils were included within the device, which causes that “Thunk” and then hum when the screen is flipped on. It resets every time the device is turned on, which keeps the image from gradually degrading if it’s kept near other devices with magnetic fields as well.

That doesn’t mean CRTs are immune to breakage: flicking the switch on and off repeatedly and too quickly may break the mechanism that does the degaussing, and you’re back to using an external degausser. There’s also breaking the screen, but any old screen could do that. Glass does seem to be a little tougher than modern LCD screens, though.

Tiny Screen, Big Equipment

The first TVs were incredible! The screen was tiny, but the equipment was huge, and frequently disguised as part of an entertainment center, so it’d blend in better. These were also CRT displays, but technology at the time didn’t let them display more than black, white, and grays. They were also limited by their size, and at the very beginning they were usually between 12 and 24 inches. An interesting artifact of this time is how differently sets were composed color-wise.

Color saturation was the key component to how something appeared in black and white, so if they wanted it to be clear that the lead was wearing a different color than their co-host, they needed to change how intense the colors were, not the colors themselves. An actor would be put in a light gray suit to stand out against another actor in a dark blue one. This also meant that the colors didn’t have to go well together!