On the surface, you would assume the smartphone had a formative influence on the infotainment systems found in a vast majority of cars sold new in 2019. In a way, it did; it helped motorists get used to the idea of poking a screen to access the different functions packed into a car. However, automakers actually began experimenting with touchscreen technology when a cell phone was still a heavy, expensive status symbol. The first car equipped with an infotainment system is actually eligible to wear vintage vehicle plates; you’re more likely to see one at a classic car show than at CES.
Showing a surprising amount of foresight, Buick was the first brand to offer a touchscreen in a series-produced model, the new-for-1986 Riviera. Now, the seventh-generation Riviera was no ordinary Buick. Its development phase was heavily influenced by two on-going shifts in the automotive industry. Firstly, parent company General Motors was in the process of shrinking most of the land yachts in its portfolio, and secondly Buick wanted to reinvent itself as a purveyor of classy luxury cars to lure younger, wealthier buyers into showrooms. The Riviera was consequently much smaller than any its predecessors, and considerably more tech-savvy.
Every Riviera came standard with a 9.0-inch touchscreen that displayed an undeniably primitive yet extremely innovative infotainment system named Graphic Control Center (GCC). Promotional material printed when Riviera production began bragged that the GCC system gave the Riviera’s dashboard a cleaner, simpler design by replacing 91 controls. If that argument rings a bell, it’s likely because automakers still use it to rationalize the television. But, in the middle of the 1980s, the mere idea of being able to buy a car with a screen stuffed in the center console made motorists feel like they were purchasing their very own slice of a Jetsons-like future. Remember: Nintendo hadn’t released the SNES yet, gamers still played Duck Hunt on the standard NES, and the computer world hailed Apple’s Macintosh Plus as a state-of-the-art machine.
Every Riviera came standard with a 9.0-inch touchscreen that displayed an undeniably primitive yet extremely innovative infotainment system.
GCC was tremendously futuristic; period road-testers had never seen anything like it, and owners unfamiliar with the system stared at it with near-superstitious awe. Its main menu displayed the average fuel economy as well as the date and the time. It also let the driver adjust the stereo’s volume, change the radio station, and set the climate control. It knew how much fuel was left in the tank, and whether one of the doors was open. And, annoyingly, it beeped loudly every time the front passengers pressed the screen to confirm it had registered a command. At least its response time was astonishingly quick, all things considered. It worked relatively well, too. Buick wisely started testing the system by installing it in a fleet of prototypes back in 1984, so it had time to iron the kinks before releasing it to the general public two years later.
Then and now, cutting-edge technology came at a cost. Riviera pricing started at $19,831 during the 1986 model year, a sum which converts to approximately $46,000 in 2019. Discerning motorists could buy a Cadillac Deville or a BMW 3 Series for about the same price, but neither had a touchscreen.
GCC technology evolved during the second half of the 1980s: Buick added an optional electronic compass and a cellular telephone directory in 1988. The feature spread to the Reatta, an even more luxurious coupe Buick introduced in 1988. Sister company Oldsmobile also offered an improved version of it with color graphics named Visual Information Center (VIC) in the updated Toronado Trofeo released in 1990, but it charged $1,300 (about $2,500 in 2019) for the feature. Spending another $995 bought shoppers an in-car mobile telephone.
Touchscreens should have continued to spread across the automotive industry. General Motors was even bigger in the early 1990s than it is in 2019, so GCC technology could have easily seeped into its other brands, like Chevrolet and Cadillac. Then, Ford could have opened the floodgates by developing a similar technology for its portfolio of brands. At that rate, most cars would have been fitted with some kind of touchscreen by the end of the 1990s. Of course, that’s not what happened though.
Early adopters didn’t fall in love with GCC. Motorists launched a scathing attach on the technology. They protested that taking their eyes off the road and their hands off the steering wheel to prod a screen in order to raise the cabin temperature by a few degrees was uselessly and dangerously distracting. Riviera and Reatta buyers were stuck with it, but those in the market for a Toronado Trofeo had little interest in paying $1,300 (about $2,500 in 2019) for it. Marooned on the island of ultramodern technology, Oldsmobile and Buick had both sent touchscreens back to the future by the middle of the 1990s.
Oldsmobile and Buick had both sent touchscreens back to the future by the middle of the 1990s.
Meanwhile, across the Pacific, Japanese automakers had started to experiment with touchscreen technology in their home market. The 1990 Mazda Eunos Cosmo was the first series-produced car equipped with touchscreen-based navigation. Rivals Toyota and Mitsubishi made touchscreens, navigation, and sometimes both available in a handful of their models during the early 1990s. The technology remained relegated to a small number of high-end, expensive cars, however. For a while, it looked like touchscreens would never manage to reach mainstream buyers.
Ultimately, the GPS and the rear-view camera brought the touchscreen back to the automotive scene. Both obviously required a screen to work. Automakers collectively decided that if it’s there, they may as well get the most out of it. The number of cars available with a touchscreen-based infotainment system ballooned the early 2010s, when Apple and Samsung were mercilessly fighting the smartphone war, and this time consumers were ready to embrace the technology. They felt more comfortable using a touchscreen, and they were more concerned with staying connected than getting distracted. As the level of connectivity in cars continually increases, there’s no going back to the pre-touchscreen world.