Ah, the inexorable march of technology. Those of us over the age of 20 no doubt have fond recollections of being wowed by the LED-driven digital dashboards that plagued many a 1980s-vintage automobile, but times - and tastes - change. These days it seems you're more likely to be laughed at for owning a car that sports such an 'innovation', but that doesn't mean automakers have given up on increasing the geek factor of the humble instrument cluster.
Practically every new mid-range car seems to feature some kind of LCD display nestled between the more traditional analogue gauges, while higher-end autos up the ante with even more intriguing setups. For instance, the speedo of the current S-Class turns into a video feed for the night-vision system at the push of the button, making 'heads-down' driving a dangerous, yet technically feasible proposition.
However, by far the most impressive in-dash instrument set-up thus far would have to be Ford's SmartGauge system, which is set to make its debut in the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid and Mercury Milan Hybrid.
Looking more like an iPhone than an instrument cluster, the SmartGauge system packages sleek visuals and real-time vehicle information into two full-colour LCD displays, which sit astride a conventional analogue speedometer. The two screens are customisable and can display data on fuel level, battery charge, drive mode, fuel economy and trip information.
There's also a nifty little graphic (or EcoGuide, as Ford calls it) on the right-hand screen that tells the driver in no uncertain terms how 'green' their driving habits are. Simply put, the more leaves and vines there are within the display, the more eco-friendly you are. Plant the accelerator and the foliage disappears. Not hard to understand, innit?
For now the SmartGauge system is a US-market only affair, and only on the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan hybrids. The technology will no doubt filter through to the rest of the Ford range eventually, but we've gotta ask: in 10 year's time, will the SmartGauge and EcoGuide be looked back upon as being examples of genuine innovation, or will they be remembered as just another in-dash gimmick?