The first car with a touchscreen is from 1986

1986 Buick Riviera (Streetside Classics)

There’s a good chance that you are touching a screen right now as you scroll through this article, unless you’re now in the minority of people who still use a computer to browse the web. Double or nothing, when you get in your daily driver, you jab at some sort of touchscreen to find your favorite jams or set the cabin temperature. Well, the latter is certainly true if you drive a Tesla or any car newer than about 2016. Or, if you happen to drive a specifically equipped 1986 Buick Riviera, you also fall into the category. Wow, 1986. While GM was launching its new finger workout screen that year, Oprah debuted, the Mir space station went into orbit, Chernobyl and the Challenger spacecraft incidents occurred and Richard Branson set a new record for an Atlantic crossing. Unlike today, your 1986 Buick Riviera touchscreen wouldn’t share the news with you.

A brief history of touchscreens

Erik Johnson with early touchscreen. (RAF)

But it could do a lot. More on that in a moment. Before we dive into the specs of the first automotive touchscreen available in a production car, we should look at the history of touchscreens altogether. For that, we have the Royal Air Force to thank. Modern touchscreens consist of many sensors sitting just beneath an LCD (liquid crystal display) or LED (light emitting diode) screen. Back in 1965 the Erik Johnson, a researcher at the Royal Radar Establishment designed the precursor to that.

In an effort to minimize response time and improve the accuracy of decision-making by air traffic controllers, he developed a touch interface that allowed for a set number of option an operator could choose from when working on a computer. His design used a glass-coated insulator with a transparent conductor made of indium tin oxide. Thin copper wires placed across a computer’s cathode ray tube (CRT) allowed circuits to be completed when touched. Seems pretty easy, right?

When did cars get touchscreens?

first car with a touchscreen
1986 Buick Riviera dash with touchscreen off. (Streetside Classics)

Over the next 15 years, developments in touchscreen capabilities led to the technology being widely adopted for a variety of computing purposes. In 1980, the technology became readily available to the public with the release of the Hewlett-Packard HP-150 touchscreen computer. It didn’t get the love they thought, however, and oddly enough, the HP Touchscreen II, released in 1984, had an optional touchscreen. Perhaps a new name could have been considered? Either way, General Motors got the wild ideas to stick the distracting and primitive tech the dashboard of one their cars. The lucky winner, the 1986 Buick Riviera.

buick touchscreen
1986 Buick Riviera touchscreen. (Streeside Classics)

According to period commercials for the option, the 9 inch black and green screen, dubbed it the Graphic Control Center handled 91 functions that formerly required the push of a button, twist of a knob or flip of a switch. While a valiant attempt to lead the charge into distracted driving, the device proved to be a nuisance more than anything. Why? For one, it let out a beep any time the screen was touched. You’d think the old engineers could make that go away with relative ease. Apparently not, as Buick quickly dropped it from the catalog. Despite a few valiant attempts by various automakers, automotive touchscreens would not find their way into the mainstream for nearly two decades.

Car touchscreens in the 2000s

BMW iDrive screen. By Hugo Venter at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
iDrive controller knob from 2003 or later once menu and back buttons were added. By Hugo Venter at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

BMW took a leap of faith in 2002, planting its new infotainment system, iDrive, in the 7-series. The name, interestingly, came about around the same time is the Apple iPod, released in October of 2001. Conspiracy theory alert! Just kidding. What is proven: the fact drivers did not love iDrive at first. Mostly because it wasn’t exactly a touchscreen. It used a large knob to control, but it was the start of something. The thought process behind the minimalist controls appears to be a shot at minimizing distraction, however it only made it more difficult to use. After two years BMW added additional features to ease function. Since then, iDrive has continued to evolve and is among the most advanced automotive infotainment systems (and they have real touchscreens now!)

Then of course there is Tesla. They bolted a 17-inch screen in the center of 2012 Model S, forever changing driver-car interaction. The Tesla touchscreen essentially took control of everything, aside from actually driving. From navigation and radio controls to climate control and even how the car charges its batteries is controlled via that screen. The portrait display, as odd as appeared at the time, set the new tone for touchscreen integration. Today, nearly every non-base level vehicle has some form of a touchscreen. Most rely on the operating systems of Android Auto and Apply CarPlay.

By jurvetson (Steve Jurvetson) – CC BY 2.0

Can I add a touchscreen to my car? Tesla Model S touchscreen.

If your car does not have an existing touchscreen, either because it rolled off the line before infotainment found its way into the dictionary or the automaker your purchased it from is simply too cheap to put it in the entry level rides, well, you’re in luck. Many aftermarket car touchscreens are available, and installation installation makes any vehicle more modern and usable. I know, I popped a touchscreen in my 2006 Subaru Baja and it feels like I’m driving a brand new car. So what are you options for adding an aftermarket touchscreen radio and info system for your car?

Carpuride 7 Inch Full HD TouchScreen Portable

Carpuride 7 Inch Full HD TouchScreen Portable. Get it here.

If you don’t want to cut up your dash for aftermarket touchscreen installation, consider the Carpuride 7 Inch portable touchscreen. It mounts via sunctioncup on your dash and integrates easily with your existing smartphone. It does require a power adapter (i.e. cigarette lighter port) to operate, but it is simple to set up and adds voice command, navigation and plenty of other functionality to any car.

KENWOOD eXcelon DDX396BT Car Touchscreen for Sale

KENWOOD eXcelon DDX396BT. Get it here.

If you prefer having the device properly installed into your vehicle’s dashboard, the KENWOOD eXcelon DDX396BT may be the way to go. This Bluetooth enabled 6.2 inch touchscreen will fit into most vehicles with the proper installation kit. Once up and running, set up is claimed to be simple. It also has an option to connect a back up camera.

The history of touchscreens in cars dates back nearly 40 years. Technology has come a long way in that time, but so has the human ability to become distracted. Remember folks, no matter how many shiny things there are to poke in your car, keep your eyes on the road! Also, if anyone comes across a 1986 Buick Riviera for sale, let me know. #WantIt.

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