Rebooting the dashboard

February 28, 2013, 3:47 PM UTC

Carmakers are replacing old-fashioned dials with much cooler gear. Here are eight ways that’s happening.

1. Video calling. Cameras mounted in the dashboard allow for placing and receiving videoconference calls, much like Apple FaceTime. In Bentley’s implementation, video calls work only when the car is parked. Shifting into gear transfers the call to voice only.

2. Configurable instruments. Instrumentation can be fully customized. Chevrolet’s next-generation Corvette offers a track mode, for instance, in which a large graphic of the high-performance car’s torque band takes center stage.

3. Energy use. Some Ford hybrids feature a data-visualization tool intended to improve the way people drive. Images of curling vines bloom with green leaves to indicate economical driving. But aggressive acceleration or braking causes them to wither.

4. Apps everywhere. At this year’s CES, Ford announced it would open up its vehicles to developers much as Google and Apple have with their phones. BMW’s upcoming i3 electric vehicle features a companion app of its own.

5. Vehicle diagnostics. A detailed display of the car’s wheels, engine, and batteries shows what’s going on below the sheet metal in real time. That type of information can be crucial for four-wheel-drive vehicles navigating deep mud, sand, or snow.

6. Smart interfaces. Motion detectors sense a hand approaching touch-sensitive areas, enabling the interface to transform accordingly. Cadillac’s CUE system, for instance, hides buttons when a driver has both hands on the wheel, cutting clutter.

7. Heads-up display. Externally mounted cameras display not only what’s behind the vehicle when it is backing up, but also what’s on the ground on either side. Infiniti’s system broadcasts a 360-degree view of the ground around the vehicle to avoid accidents.

8. Huge displays. Forget squinting to read a minuscule GPS display. New vehicles like the hot-selling Tesla Model S feature gigantic screens akin to a 17-inch laptop’s. That allows for more PC-like interfaces that can display large maps or entire web pages.

This story is from the March 18, 2013 issue of Fortune.