The Ford Fusion SmartGauge: good stuff, missed opportunities

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.


D. Lambert
If you'll recall, there was a movement to do away with engine-temp gauges a number of years ago, replacing these with "Engine Temp" warning lights, or the equivalent. These lamps quickly earned the moniker "idiot lights", and were widely panned in the automotive enthusiast press. I, for one, appreciate the ability to see engine temp even when it's not a problem. When my car is cold, I like to see the temp rise to "normal", and when I'm driving in stop & go traffic, I appreciate knowing that the temp isn't creeping up -- even before it becomes a "problem". You see, the value of analog gauges is that they convey two pieces of information at once -- value and rate of change. They also do so pretty efficiently in terms of dashboard real estate and cognitive effort. The "rate of change" aspect of the gauge almost occurs subconsciously. There are other ways to represent this, of course - aircraft have a gauge that indicates rate of altitude change, but I don't believe that many people would be comfortable with this because they're just not used to a gauge like this. Personally, I'd like to see a gauge that's small and subtle while it's reading "normal" values, and see it grow in size and prominence (brighter, perhaps a different color) when it indicates a problem. But that's just me.
T. Cwik
The Ford Fusion SmartGauge cluster does estimate the distance one can drive before running out of fuel. Look at the Right Display that indicates "miles to E: 126". It is at the bottom of the picture used in your write-up. You should be more careful before trashing the design.
Doug LeMoine
@T. Cwik: Yes, you're right. The miles-to-empty calculation is there at the very bottom-right of the panel. I'm curious about the dynamic possibilities that Kim suggests, though, and I wonder if the gauge (or the miles-to-empty readout) becomes more prominent as the tank runs out. These subtle behaviors are always hard to express in a single screenshot, so it's quite likely that there's more here than meets the eye.
Jeff Greenberg
Kim... excellent comments! I was one of the SmartGauge designers at Ford and we appreciate it when people take the time to give thoughtful feedback. I only just ran across your blog or I would have commented earlier. A few thoughts: The center 'analog' speedo really *is* an analog speedo, which explains why it's so...conventional. We did make an attempt at harmony so that it's not trivial to tell that the display is not entirely digital. Personally, I think you make a good point about the lines running behind the MPG labels but we did extensive testing on legibility for exactly this reason and drivers just didn't have a problem with it so it stayed in. Sometimes the data can surprise you. The point of the leaves display however seems a little lost in your analysis. To drive efficiently it helps to have at least two pieces of information. First you need rapid feedback on your current state so that you can adjust your driving style in the moment. This might be the mpg gauge for some folks or the top-level power gauge for more techie types. Second, you need an integrated assessment of your performance over some meaningful epoch. This could be done with a fuel-efficiency history graph (we have one) but SmartGauge also has an 'emotive' display using the leaves. The theory here is that green is the easiest color to see (it's the scotopic maximum for human vision) and an easy way to convey magnitude is to paint a larger and larger percentage of a defined space green as the underlying parameter (efficiency) increases. It works nicely because you can glance for an extremely brief period of time at the leaf display and come away with a pretty accurate estimate of the percent of green coverage. Works even for the color blind. So the magnitude is readable at a quick glance. The efficiency parameter is integrated over several minutes of driving so what you see is a reflection of your driving style over a meaningful period. The fact that we rendered the green fill as leaves on a vine is an example of Norman's principle of reflective design. We hoped it would be both useful and provoke an emotional reaction and judging by the press reaction and the early drivers I'm very pleased with the result! Your comment about visually pointing out efficient behavior is right on target. SmartGauge does this in ways that allow the driver to really maximize fuel economy if that's their immediate goal. But not every driver wants that and no driver wants it all the time! Sometimes you just have to get to the airport in time for your flight and fuel efficiency drops down a few pegs on the goal hierarchy. Since SmartGauge is *that* smart, it doesn't try to guess at your current goal state and become overt with nagging messages. We just give you the facts and figure that the driver is the best judge of what do to with them. And SmartGauge is highly configurable so you can choose just *which* facts are the most useful to *you*.
I am surprised to read that no lines at all in the mpg-display are supposed to help legibility. I always thought that *some* lines *help* to get the information at a glance and improve accuracy. I feel confirmed by the design of gauges in fighter aircraft and other professional instruments

Post a comment

We’re trying to advance the conversation, and we trust that you will, too. We’d rather not moderate, but we will remove any comments that are blatantly inflammatory or inappropriate. Let it fly, but keep it clean. Thanks.

Post this comment