What’s an elec. instrument cluster?

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Electronic instrument clusters, originally designed for spacecraft, are now found in many vehicles. They allow drivers to monitor engine function and vehicle speed without taking their eyes off the road, but can be costly to repair.

An electronic instrument cluster uses digital gauges and is found on a vehicle’s dashboard. A standard instrument cluster is the type of dash cluster that uses gauges with pointer needles to understand the warning lights also known as “idiot lights.” With early versions offered only in high-end vehicles, the electronic instrument cluster has found its way into less equipped vehicles due to its ease of reading and understanding. With an electronic instrument cluster, the driver can watch engine functions for any signs of abnormal operation rather than simply reacting to a warning light that is programmed to illuminate only after there is a problem.

The electronic instrument cluster was originally designed for use on spacecraft, because electronic instruments were considered easier to read than the pointer-style sweep gauges that were standard issue at the time. By including an electronic instrument cluster, an astronaut could accurately read the gauge from across the cabin. The design soon found its way into fighter-type military aircraft and then commercial aviation applications. The auto industry soon realized the benefits of including an electronic instrument cluster in its sports car lineup, and eventually the gauges found their way to luxury vehicles and then the family sedan.

There were virtually no design changes available to the electronic instrument cluster for years, except for the addition of a color option, and the gauges typically illuminated with a blue or red light. Following in the footsteps of the military, the auto industry soon offered the electronic gauges in a heads-up configuration similar to instruments found in the cockpit of a fighter jet. The head-up display option offered only on high-end sports cars and luxury vehicles projected instruments onto the vehicle’s windshield directly in the driver’s line of sight. This allows the driver to monitor engine function and vehicle speed without having to take their eyes off the road.

The downside to the electronic instrument cluster comes in the form of added cost. The gauge package has remained a high-cost option with the head-up display continuing to be offered as an option only on higher-end vehicles in any given model line. Additionally, repairing any damaged or malfunctioning gauge often requires replacement of the entire instrument panel. While rare, a single lighting fixture burning out can mean the entire electronic instrument cluster needs to be replaced.

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