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Tesla's dream screen: The car dashboard of the future

The Tesla S sedan, coming next year, boasts a 17-inch touch-screen interface designed from scratch by the pioneering maker of electric vehicles.

The Tesla S's touch-screen interface.
The Tesla S's touch-screen interface.
James Martin/CNET

Lots of things have changed about cars over the past few decades. One that hasn't evolved all that much is the user interface that most of them provide. Garden-variety automobiles are still full of gauges and buttons and switches of the decidedly physical, old-fashioned sort.

And then there's Tesla's Model S. Due in showrooms next summer, the $57,400 sedan is the spiritual offpsring of the company's $108,000 Roadster sports car, in a more practical package. But when I checked it out today at GigaOM's RoadMap conference in San Francisco, I wasn't wondering what it would be like to drive. I was too busy gawking at its 17-inch touch screen--a spectacular standard feature which, along with a smaller LCD display in front of the driver, replaces nearly all of the traditional controls and indicators short of basics such as the steering wheel and turn signals.

Tesla's mapping and music apps.
Tesla's mapping and music apps. James Martin/CNET

Tesla's screen resembles a large iPad or Android tablet--it's hard to overstate how overwhelmingly ginormous it looks--and sits in between the driver and front passenger. It has a music player, a navigation system, hand-free calling, a rear-view camera, climate controls, and other features which you might expect. It also lets you check up on the status of your car's battery, and--as you can see in the photo above--it sports a full-blown Web browser. And Tesla says that it will allow third-party apps, too.

Most newfangled car infotainment systems are built on guts provided by other companies. (QNX--the operating system that's in RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook and upcoming BlackBerry phones--is widely used.) But like just about everything about Tesla's vehicles, this system is being hand-crafted by the company from scratch. It runs Linux as its foundation; a company spokesperson wouldn't tell me what components are inside today, but according to Sybase blogger Eric Lai, it uses Nvidia's ARM-based Tegra platform, which is also inside Motorola's Xoom and other tablets and smartphones.

The demo car I saw today has a built-in 3G data connection. Tesla says that by the time the S goes on sale, that may be upgraded to 4G.

Folks who love gadgets will go instinctively gaga for the S's interface. After they've calmed down a bit, they may also wonder about its safety implications. (I know that I'd be tempted to let my eyes wander from the road ahead onto that eye-popping display.) Tesla says that the system is still a work in progress, and that the company is still figuring out what you will and won't be able to do while the car is in motion. It's also thinking about auto-dimming the display so it's not too much of a distraction as you're zooming down the highway.

The Tesla S on display at GigaOM's RoadMap conference.
The Tesla S on display at GigaOM's RoadMap conference. James Martin/CNET

Less humongous touch-screen car interfaces are no longer a complete novelty--in recent months I've tried and liked Ford's MyFord Touch and the one in Audi's A7. But the sweeping ambition of Tesla's approach sets it apart, especially given the plodding pace of innovation that's typical in the car industry. 

I spoke with GigaOM writer Katie Fehrenbacher, who told me that the current wisdom is that connected, high-tech dashboard gadgetry should become totally standard fare within the next five years or so. That sounds about right. Even in 2016, though, I have a hunch that Tesla's 17-inch superscreen will set it apart from the pack.