I’ve been predicting an increase in screen size (and the number of screens) in cars for years. It matches up with the trend to automate more, provide more information to the driver, and eventually take over the driving entirely (known in the industry as Level Four automation).
Not only will we need more information about what is happening in the car, but we will eventually need those extra screens to do work in the car while we drive, watch movies, talk on a Skype call, or find other ways to communicate and entertain ourselves.
That’s why I was so impressed with the 11.6-inch screen in the 2020 Subaru Legacy Outback. I tested one recently for a week and kept noticing the expansive screen. It was mostly helpful because once I connected my iPhone 11 Pro and activated Apple CarPlay, there was still room at the top of the screen and below for other features and functions.
For example, at the top I was able to swipe through several summary screens, one showing my currently selected audio stream. This is more important than you might think, because I don’t always use my phone for music playback and sometimes listen to the radio. Yet, in most cars, once CarPlay takes up the whole screen, you can’t adjust anything else.
Below the main CarPlay screen, there was also room for the climate controls. Again, as these features are now so often available only on the screen (and not a physical button), it makes it easier to enable the seat heater or raise the temperature. (The Legacy does technically have dedicated buttons for the temp but it’s amazing how I tend to ignore those now.)
At 11.6 inches, the new screen is roughly the size of the expansive screen on the latest RAM trucks and is inching closer (literally and figuratively) the 17-inch screen on a Tesla Model S.
Autonomy and entertainment
So what comes next? I imagine a day coming soon when there is a second or even a third large tablet-sized screen in cars. For example, it’s just a matter of time before there’s a landscape orientation screen meant for the passenger, who can play a movie or hold a video call while you drive (or even when you hand off control to the car).
I’m a little surprised we haven’t seen this already, although I’m sure it's a major cost issue. And, there are issues with distracted driving for now since no car on the road today is fully autonomous in all conditions.
However, even then, the Subaru Legacy Touring does have quite a few automated features. I tested the EyeSight Driver Assist features which can automate the steering for you (even if you do need to keep your hands on the wheel).
Essentially, the car keeps you centered in the lane even around corners, so it matches up nicely with the big screen that we will rely on more and more. Many of the settings for EyeSight are found in the 11.6-inch screen which makes them easier to find and use, as opposed to the smaller screen above the steering wheel.
I could see the screens increasing in size more and more, and cars adding more screens as we become more accustomed to being less actively engaged with driving.
On The Road is TechRadar's regular look at the futuristic tech in today's hottest cars. John Brandon, a journalist who's been writing about cars for 12 years, puts a new car and its cutting-edge tech through the paces every week. One goal: To find out which new technologies will lead us to fully self-driving cars.
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John Brandon has covered gadgets and cars for the past 12 years having published over 12,000 articles and tested nearly 8,000 products. He's nothing if not prolific. Before starting his writing career, he led an Information Design practice at a large consumer electronics retailer in the US. His hobbies include deep sea exploration, complaining about the weather, and engineering a vast multiverse conspiracy.