June 21, 2012 at 5:43 PM ET
When you're putting out a groundbreaking car like Tesla's Model S, it pays to make the interior as interesting as what's under the hood. Tesla did this by working with chip-maker Nvidia to produce an enormous touchscreen for its dashboard replacing the usual switches and dials altogether.
The screen and its car were both on display in January at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas — in fact, it's been shown in various forms as early as 2009. I got to sit in the driver's seat and get the full tour, though at the time many functions were still not quite ready to be demonstrated.
The huge screen can be made to show the usual controls for air, radio, and other car functions, but can also be turned over in full to things like the mapping app, which ends up dwarfing the GPS units and screens in existing luxury cars.
There are tabs for music and entertainment, the on-board camera, and even a full-on Internet browser. And there's even going to be a small marketplace for apps, though there weren't any ready at the time they were showing it. But it seems likely that we'll be seeing the likes of Twitter and Spotify on that big screen soon enough.
The big 17-inch screen runs on the latest Tegra 3 chip, which integrates many functions into a single system. There's a smaller 12-inch display for your instrument display, and that runs on a separate Tegra 2 chip — no reason your speedometer should be laggy because the kids are watching a high-def video in the back, right?
It remains to be seen whether the custom interface, running Linux at its core, is as responsive and intuitive as an in-car system ought to be. Not that existing dash systems are particularly good — I've struggled with the on-screen interfaces in ostensibly smart vehicles for years. It's as much a matter of safety as it is of convenience, as important settings or features might require one to take one's eyes off the road instead of just reaching for a dial, as we have for around a century now.
Tesla's Model S will start rolling out to its first 10,000 buyers on Friday, so reviews and impressions from car enthusiasts will appear soon. If you're curious, drop by your local Tesla dealership and take a look yourself.
Devin Coldewey is acontributing writer for msnbc.com. His personal website iscoldewey.cc.