• Displays critical information, such as speed and fuel level
  • Includes a panel for navigation or audio
  • Allows driver to select a layout

In the 1980s, some automakers began using digital displays in place of analog gauges for vehicles' instrument panels. Speedometers were most likely to get the digital treatment, but the trend never really caught on. Analog gauges continued to persist in most models for decades. Now, the configurable instrument panel is quickly becoming the choice in luxury and performance models. Blending the look of analog gauges with the flexibility of digital displays, these panels also allow drivers to tailor the instrument cluster to show the information they need and hide the clutter.

An instrument panel, instrument cluster or gauge cluster is the area of the dash -- usually just forward of the steering wheel -- that includes gauges such as the speedometer, fuel gauge and tachometer as well as various indicator lights. A configurable instrument panel replaces those mechanical gauges and lights with a full-color display. The most common display technology is called thin-film transistor, or TFT.

With older technology, digital speedometers typically provide a numerical display of vehicle speed: "55" at highway speeds, for example. With a new configurable panel, the driver can often choose the format, either a numerical value or, like a traditional analog gauge, a needle indicating speed. Some vehicles allow both to be displayed simultaneously.

Drivers also can choose which gauges or information to display. Some performance drivers may want to include a tachometer to display engine speed. Highway drivers may be less concerned with engine speed and instead show navigation in the instrument cluster. Most configurable panels offer space for secondary information functions, such navigation or audio. Drivers can even reconfigure a display to suit their tastes or mood by choosing a different color or style.

That flexibility is perhaps one of the best attributes of a configurable instrument panel. Drivers' needs change, and this technology allows the vehicle to change along with them. Unlike a few decades ago, a range of automakers are quickly adopting digital technology for a variety of models. The 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class and 2014 Chevrolet Corvette both use the technology, and it's even available on more affordable vehicles such as the Dodge Dart.

What it means to you: A configurable instrument panel allows the driver to choose which information to show and how it looks, providing flexibility unmatched by traditional gauge clusters.

author photo

Nick Palermo is an automotive writer and lifelong car nut. He follows new and late-model used vehicles for AutoTrader.com, writes about vintage cars for Hemmings Classic Wheels and blogs on all things automotive at LivingVroom. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and twins.

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