The instrument panel was available in the VW Golf and Jetta 32 years ago.

Graphic and digital displays are becoming common nowadays and dashboards now incorporate screens where functions can be activated or adjusted by just touching the screen, just like on your tablet or phone. No longer is there a need to turn knobs, press buttons or slide levers. Also, the amount of information that can be presented to the driver has increased tremendously since the screens can be changed to suit different preferences.

Although the digital display seems like something that appeared only in recent times, Volkswagen already offered the first digital driver information centre in 1986 when a digital speedometer screen was installed in the Golf Mk 2 and Jetta Mk 2.

Dashboard on the first generation of the Golf in the 1970s.

The initiative to develop such a display started with the question: ‘Why does everything in the car always have to be mechanical? We could in fact also look for electronic solutions!’,” recalled Dr. Walter Zimdahl, who was responsible for the field of electronics in the Department of Future Research at the time.

One result was the ‘DigiFiz’ – the short form (in German) for ‘Digital Driver Information Centre’. When you consider that personal computers had only just been born, DigiFiz was a pioneering achievement. It offered innovations that literally caught the eye of the beholder, beginning purely externally with what – for the time – were futuristic-looking digital displays. These included the speed and route, the fuel gauge measuring to the precise litre, the coolant temperature to the precise degree and the reminder of the next service appointment.

‘Liquid crystal display’ was a key in the development of DigiFiz. “We found what we were looking for from a producer of digital watches,” said Dr. Zimdahl. “The only problem was the crystals in the watches could no longer be aligned to an electric field at temperatures above 50 degrees C.; everything turned grey or black and white, you could no longer make anything out. In the Golf and Jetta, however, the display had to function within a temperature range of minus 40 to +80 degrees Celsius!” VDO, which supplied instrument panels to Volkswagen, was consulted and engineers from both companies worked together to find a solution.

In the past, drivers pressed buttons or turned knobs to make adjustments but today, touchscreens make things much easier.

“Without these pioneering deeds, such as the DigiFiz, we wouldn’t have the Active Info Display in production in today’s models,” observed Tomasz Bachorski, Head of Interior Design for the Volkswagen Brand, complimenting Zimdahl and his colleagues at that time.

Bachorski looks back fondly upon the development of the new Polo, which appeared for the first time with a digital cockpit at its launch in 2017. The sixth generation of Polo was the first Volkswagen, and the first model in the Volkswagen Group, to feature a new generation of the Active Info Display. A new control panel and cockpit layout for compact Volkswagen models was used for the first time.

This type of display may have been seen only in concept cars 40 years ago but it is now available in the latest VW T-Roc.

During the design and development process, the focus was on the increasing digitalisation of the display and controls, as well as the connectivity, which required new solutions. The interface designers consistently further developed the Active Info Display, taking the high-quality graphics and range of functions to a new level.

In concrete terms, this means that the second generation of the Active Info Display operates exclusively digitally – within the framework of the legal provisions that stipulate certain fixed elements such as the indicator lamp for the parking brake – and is, for instance, freely configurable.

Another milestone on the long road to digitisation of the cockpit, which is also a basic requirement for strategic future issues of today – such as electric mobility or connected driving – was the centrally positioned ‘multifunction display’ (MFD) that first appeared in Volkswagen production vehicles with the Golf Mk4. In addition to the hitherto unprecedented high resolution of the large screen, it offered coloured navigation maps for the first time.

The completely glass-covered system without analogue buttons allows functions and design to blend with one another. “Digitalisation opens up entirely new stylistic options for us designers, as in the Innovision Cockpit of the new Touareg,” continued Bachorski enthusiastically. His team has been involved in the development from the outset, exchanges ideas with ergonomics experts, the developers, consults with sales and pays particular attention to the user experience. In other words, there is direct feedback from users in ‘real life’.

“From the functional displays to the coordination of instrument lighting and ambient light, everything can be individually selected – if you so wish,” explained Bachorski. In the future, the system will additionally ‘notice’ individual settings of display functions and lighting and will apply them as from the second setting operation. The whole process takes place without obligation: “The driver is asked: ‘May your car get to know you, YES or NO?’” Bachorski explained.

The dashboard in one of today’s Volkswagen models.

In 2018, digitalisation has also long since reached Volkswagen Interior Design in all its information functions and comfort zones – which, according to Bachorski, is also what presents the challenge: “Functional, trustworthy technology – in the displays for speed and fuel consumption for example – in harmony with attractive aesthetics and graphic excellence.” And, above all, with generous options for individualisation.

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[Chips Yap]

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