When I first saw on twitter that Brian France had said NASCAR was looking at “glass cockpits” for the future, I was a little mystified. (You can see exactly what he said on @nateryan’s twitter feed.) Everyone knows that there’s no glass on a NASCAR race car. Lexan, yes, but no glass. Plus, where would you put all the decals? Thanks to @chrisneville84 for pointing me in the right direction.
Sure ’nuff, when you look up the term in quotes, glass cockpit does mean something definitely different from the literal expression.
The term “glass cockpit” originated in aviation. If you look at old WWII movies where the pilot is in a dive, you’ll see a mechanical altimeter with the numbers flipping around dangerously. The problem was that, as airplane technology advanced, the number of gauges and controls increased. Writing in the book “Airborne Trailblazer“, Lane Wallace noted that by the mid 1970’s, an average airplane had more than 100 cockpit instruments and controls.
The problem is that a dashboard gives you limited space. The more gauges and controls, the more crowded your dashboard becomes. In an emergency, about the last thing you want to have to do is to look for the right gauge amongst a field of readings you don’t need.
The glass cockpit uses digital display of information, but it’s function is far more than just replacing 100 analog gauges by 100 digital gauges. The glass cockpit allows you (or a software program) to change the information that is presented (and even how it is presented) so that you have the right information at the right time. Those 100 controls can be shown to you in groups of five or ten.
Most of the initial innovation in glass cockpits was done by NASA and Boeing and, in addition to engineering, there was a fair amount of research on perception and psychology. They were worried not only about what information the pilot needed to know, but also what the best way was to present it to him (and it was mostly “hims” at the time).
Let’s look at this in terms of NASCAR. Knowing your speed is only really critical on Pit Lane, where you get penalized for going too fast. The rest of the time, all you care about in terms of your speed is whether you’re going faster than the cars around you. A glass cockpit-type display might put a speedometer front and center anytime the driver dropped below racing speed — or when the driver flipped a switch. The software architects also would have to think about whether it would be more helpful to a NASCAR driver to have red, yellow and green lights to tell him (or her) when they were in danger of exceeding pit road speed, or whether it would be better to have a digital display that shows them the actual number.
The figure to the left is an example of an aftermarket ‘glass cockpit display’ from Chetco.com. It is digitally generated, so you can decide which gauge you want where. It’s got some color coding (red, yellow, green) to help your brain figure out the information a little faster.
There are a lot of cars already on the market that have replaced most or all of the analog gauges (the needle and dial) with digital gauges. The first ones that pop up in a Google search are the 2011 Ford Edge (which has a modifiable display) and the Range Rover. But even the resurrected Dodge Dart (a ~$16,000 car) will have glass cockpit features.
We’ve already become familiar with multiple menus that group information: I don’t need to see the radio options when I’m using the GPS to tell me how to get where I need to go. The menu system lets me display the information I need (a map) at the moment in the largest possible form. Once I know where I’m going, I need the radio information.
Another feature increasingly being used by the military is ‘heads up’ displays, where the information is projected onto a surface that the driver (or pilot) can see without having to move his or her eyes too far from the road. If you’ve ever looked up from the radio or speedometer to find that the person in front of you has slammed on the brakes, you appreciate how much time you lose when you have to divert your attention from the direction the car is going. That technology is going to be headed into passenger cars at some point in the future, too.
This doesn’t automatically mean that the information is going to be sent to the pits during a race, or that the drivers will have access to much more information. It could be implemented with the same gauges that are currently allowed. NASCAR might give teams the option of having the water temperature be the largest gauge at plate races, where it is very important, and something else taking that space at other tracks. They might allow more information. No telling at this point.
NASCAR and the manufacturers who compete in NASCAR have a renewed emphasis on making the cars look much more like the cars you and I can buy. I don’t begrudge the COT phase, even though the car moved pretty far away from the looks of their street counterparts. They’ve already modified the bodies in the Nationwide series and will do the same in Cup next year. Changing the gauging will likely not have a whole lot of impact on the racing, but it’s another step in letting us maintain the fantasy that we’re Jeff Gordon or Carl Edwards as we’re racing down the expressway.