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By Ben Foldy
When it comes to the media display in your car, auto makers are betting size does matter.
Car companies are introducing bigger screens -- and more of them -- in their newest models. Executives say the larger displays are needed as the systems that show navigational tools, music options and the like become more sophisticated, and consumers -- especially younger ones -- want to bring more of their digital lives into the car.
The increased size and functionality, however, have raised questions about whether outsize displays help or hinder efforts to curb distracted driving.
Last week, at the Los Angeles Auto Show, Ford Motor Co. was the latest auto maker to debut a mammoth display: a 15.5-inch touch screen that will be in the company's new all-electric Mustang Mach-E SUV when it goes on sale late next year. At that size, it will be the industry's second largest in-car display screen behind the 17-inch panel that Tesla Inc. introduced in 2012 on the Model S sedan.
"The experience that our customers are familiar with on their laptop or cellphone -- that rich experience -- has really moved into the vehicle," said Gary Jablonski, chief engineer of connected car technology at Ford.
Others such as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus division and BMW AG have rolled out models recently with display screens measuring 12 inches diagonally or more, larger than the screen on the most popular iPad, which measures 10.2 inches.
The newest Ram trucks from Fiat Chrysler, for example, have a 12-inch touch screen display. Subaru Corp. recently introduced a new Outback wagon and Impreza sedan with 11.6-inch displays, a size available on all but the base models.
The number of vehicles built in North America with display screens measuring 7 inches or more has grown by nearly 75% in the past five years, to 10.9 million from 6.3 million, according to data and analytics firm IHS Markit. The average size of the screen also has increased, to 7.3 inches from 6.4 inches, during that period, the firm's data shows.
"The trend we see in the industry is bigger is better," said Georges Massing, an executive at Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz division who leads its digital vehicle technologies efforts.
Mercedes's newest multimedia system, the MBUX, combines a large touch screen, measuring up to 12.3 inches on some models, with a similar-sized display for gauges that spans roughly half the dashboard. Drivers can call up features by tapping and swiping items on the touch screen or using the system's voice-activated digital assistant.
Byton, a Chinese electric vehicle startup, is taking screen size to the extreme when it rolls out its first new vehicle, the M-Byte, next year in China with a 48-inch display that stretches across the entire span of the dashboard. The company said it plans to bring the car to the U.S. in 2021.
Jeff Chung, Byton's vice president for digital engineering, said its research has shown that drivers divert their gaze less from the road with a supersize display, compared with one located in the center console.
"Distraction comes when you can't find the information you want," Mr. Chung said. He added, "It's not about the size of the display but about the content and where that content is located."
Already, drivers are struggling to stay focused with an influx of new technology coming into the car and large displays only add to the cognitive load, said David Strayer, a University of Utah professor who studies in-car technology.
"As the screens get bigger, they also tend to inherit more functions and features," Mr. Strayer said.
The wider use of touch screens is also worrisome because they tend to replace the more familiar buttons and knobs, and can be distracting for drivers, who often have to navigate functions by tapping through different menus, said Jake Nelson, a traffic safety and advocacy director at AAA.
Some car shoppers aren't impressed with the larger screens. Gino Sferra, who is in the market for an SUV, said he hopes vehicle safety systems are also improving.
"I don't think of my car as a place to be entertained," said Mr. Sferra, a 32-year-old technology consultant in San Antonio.
Federal regulators have placed few limits on in-car displays and what they can do.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2013 issued a set of voluntary guidelines to cut down on distractions from in-car displays, including recommendations on preventing drivers from inputting text while the car is moving and against displaying unnecessary images. The guidelines don't include recommendations on size.
A NHTSA spokesman said the agency is testing how companies comply with the guidance and will update it as needed, he said.
"The issue is that this is such a fast-moving technology, it's hard for regulation to keep up with that," said Jake Fisher, director of auto testing at Consumer Reports.
Industry designers say they are attentive to safety concerns. Bigger displays allow for larger text and icons, they say, making it easier for drivers to process information or quickly accomplish their tasks. Whether a screen is distracting or helpful is less a question of size than of how intuitive it is to use, Ford's Mr. Jablonski said.
"You can do a big screen well or you can do a big screen poorly," Mr. Jablonski said. "And we obviously think we're doing it well."
Write to Ben Foldy at Ben.Foldy@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 25, 2019 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)
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