There's been a certain amount of buzz in automotive circles about the new SmartGauge dash display in the Ford Fusion hybrid. What's so cool? According to Ford, the car encourages fuel-efficient driving habits by giving users constant feedback. What's not to love about encouraging cleaner driving (if we can't get people out of their cars entirely)? Then there's the customizable LCD, which is what really has the car geeks going (check out this video of how it works).


Unfortunately, Ford missed multiple opportunities by thinking of the LCD as basically a digital translation of an analog dashboard--right down to the secondary km/h display on an "analog" dial--plus the ability to display some pretty pictures. The real benefit of that LCD is that you can show users exactly the information they need--and only the information they need--at any time. The less visual information there is, the more likely a driver (who already has a heavy cognitive load) will be able to make use of it. Unlike a physical dashboard, a digital display doesn't need to show engine temperature, for example, until it's becoming a potential problem. I suspect most people would much prefer to see their dash display driving directions or even the name of the song currently playing on the radio.

The visual display itself could be rendered much more legible. For example, it would help not to have lines running behind the numbers on the mpg display. If the green leaves are supposed to make drivers feel good about their behavior, that's a legitimate aim, but a simple gauge would make the fuel-efficiency of my driving style easier to interpret.

Since there's an onboard computer assessing driving style, Ford could have made better use of the information the car is already gathering. For example, if the car knows the fuel tank and battery are half-full and knows how fuel-efficient I'm being, why can't it save me some mental math and tell me how many miles I can go without refueling? Also, if it knows what makes my driving style less efficient than it could be, why not visually point out behavior (such as shifting to a different gear) that would be more fuel efficient?

Kudos to Ford for thinking green and for incorporating a long-overdue technology in the car dashboard. As is so often the case with technology products, though, I think I'll be waiting for version 2.