How Dashboard Displays Work

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­"Keep your eyes on the road" has been the mantra of every driver's education teacher and nervous passenger, as well as the occasional rock star (The Doors included the advice in their song "Roadhouse Blues"). But the fact of the matter is, we really don't keep our eyes on the road at all times. And that's not to say that we're engaging in dangerous behavior like texting or changing radio stations while driving -- we're actually briefly averting our eyes to aid the driving experience. We refer of course, to the dashboard display.

The term "dashboard" didn't originate with traffic jams that made drivers want to dash their head against something hard in the hopes of losing consciousness, but instead was passed down to us from the horse and buggy days. Fans of the song "Jingle Bells" have long known that the proper speed for a one-horse open sleigh was "dashing," but when horses started to dash along o'er the fields, bells on bobtails weren't the only things ringing. The cries of the driver and passenger likely also rang out as they got splattered with mud, meaning that spirits were definitely not bright, and laughing all the way wasn't an option. So along came a piece of wood that protected the buggy's passengers from all the mud and slush, which was known as the dashboard.

­When cars replaced carriages, that dashboard came too, as an ordinary slab of wood under the windshield. Dashboard displays, or instrument panels, were a little bit longer in coming. If you needed to know how much gas was left in an early car, you put a stick in your gas tank, and if you wanted to know the temperature, you went to the radiator itself [source: Lamm]. By the 1930s, though, cars started coming with gauges, and by the mid-30's, all cars included what has been graciously termed the "idiot light," or a warning light indicating that something is wrong with the vehicle [source: Lamm]. Even in the present day, manufacturers are tinkering with the instrument panel, moving it to the center of the dashboard or packing it full of technology that may make keeping your eyes on the road harder than ever.

So what's taking up that valuable real estate on the dashboard?