Driving transformation: The past, present and future of the car cockpit

Despite its use by car manufacturers to describe the controls of a car since the 1930s, the word ‘cockpit’ is rarely used colloquially. When I hear the word, my mind jumps immediately to the myriad of lights and switches on a fighter jet’s control panel. Formula 1 racing fans will also be quick to point out that the complex cacophony of color-coded buttons jammed around the steering wheel of an F1 car is also referred to as its cockpit.

Perhaps this disconnect is simply one of perceived complexity: compared to the cockpit of, say, a Boeing 787, the various stalks and switches of the vast majority of production vehicles are relatively straightforward.

Since the late 1970s however, car manufacturers have been exploring how to implement more complex ‘cockpit’ features and functions into their vehicles. In the vast majority of cases, these have been expensive options reserved for luxury cars – digital instrument clusters and even heads-up displays (HUDs) featured in vehicles prior to 1990, yet their adoption was as limited as their implementation.

Yet as microcontroller technology has improved, so has our ability to build in the sort of advanced cockpit features previously only imagined in aircraft or racing cars. Technology that would have previously been either impossible or impossibly expensive is now available in production vehicles with little to no cost passed on to the end user. No wonder, then, that Arm experts expect vehicle interiors to change more in the next decade than they have done in the past 50 years.

What role does Arm play?

Already, Arm architecture has played a pivotal role in enabling the automotive technology that keeps us safe, comfortable and entertained today. In-Vehicle Infotainment (IVI) systems now unite dashboard instrumentation with navigation, climate control, audio and telephony data while advanced driver-assisted systems (ADAS) help us stay in-lane, adapt our car’s speed based on traffic conditions. The vast majority of the technology behind your car’s dashboard is based on Arm. 

As cockpit technology evolves, we shouldn’t expect cars to start resembling fighter plane interiors – quite the opposite. I’m looking forward to owning a car with far fewer buttons and switches than my first car had. This begins with human-centric technologies such as voice control and touchscreens and culminates in the vision of the fully autonomous vehicle. Of course, this will take time – you think a Dreamliner’s cockpit is complex? The autopilot software used by Boeing is comprised of approximately 14 million lines of code. A Level 5 (fully autonomous) vehicle’s software is likely to approach 1 billion lines.

Explore the technology hotspots in car cockpits

To highlight just how dramatically cockpit technology has changed in the past few decades, we’ve created an interactive experience that enables you to explore the technology hotspots in car cockpits of the past, present, and future – as well as how Arm technology has helped and continues to enable the evolution of the car cockpit faster than ever before.

View interactive