Volume vehicles are rapidly adopting larger displays, and the sight of 12 inch, 14 inch, or even dash-wide displays, as we saw at IAA Frankfurt, is no longer ground-breaking. This drive towards bigger screens has had the knock-on effect of pushing some vehicles to adopt portrait displays for functional reasons, rather than aesthetic ones. While this tablet-sized approach to head-unit displays is filtering through European and American cockpits, China is showing the way forward.
Head-units with a portrait-oriented display remain a minority globally, but there is a clear lead in deployment from Chinese brands. In China, over 25% of brands offer at least one portrait display, covering 8% of the model solutions tracked in SBD’s Head-Unit Database. By contrast, in Europe and the USA, only 1% of brands have portrait displays on the market. The transition towards portrait displays appears linked to low and mid-range display size. Designers have long been able to make space for a 7” landscape display in the central dash area. Moves towards (and beyond) 10 inch displays require either a dash-wide concept, a display which protrudes from the center stack area, or a portrait orientation to avoid obscuring the driver’s view over the dash. Therefore, any increases in European or American support of portrait orientation is likely to follow or coincide with further increases in display size.
While the relative number of portrait units is small this year, new systems coming onto the market do not appear to be one-off variants, but the leading-edge of an ever-increasing change in the way our vehicles are being designed. This flexible approach to display integration has potentially put function ahead of design appearance, but in the Chinese market, that does not appear to present a problem. It is now up to the rest of the world to decide how fast it wants to catch up.
Chinese head-units are pushing boundaries. The speed at which new units and services are being launched in China this year shows that both regional and global brands are treating China as an ideal market for taking technology and design risks.
Chinese-market decisions may not directly impact the choices of global automakers, but the rapid development cycle in China creates a unique condition for brands to do things differently to their home market. Whether the progress in China will actually lead activity in the rest of the world, or whether manufacturers can test designs out faster in China and it is simply a reflection of the way the world is already heading, the conclusion is the same either way - to understand where global head-unit technology is going to be tomorrow, you need only look at what is happening in China today.