Tesla thinks knobs are sooo 20th century, and Mercedes wants to put your car in a cloud. After decades of false starts and minor tweaks, connected cars are on their way. While Audi’s gesture-based dashboard is still a few years off, the auto industry is finally making fundamental changes to the way you interact with your car, and they’re available right now. It’s about time.

Today’s cars have hybrid engines, automatic traction control, antilock brakes and GPS navigation. They even drive and park themselves. Your grandfather’s car had an AM radio, a stick shift and a hemi.

For more on advanced automobile UI systems, check out ReadWriteWeb's series on Connected Cars.

Modern cars and their ancestors have about as much in common as an iPhone and an Apple II, so why do we still operate them the same way? Because for all their advancements in safety, comfort and performance, the auto industry hates change inside the cockpit, and just about every time someone comes up with a nifty idea, the industry chuckles and turns away.

The only thing holding the industry's attention has been the overwhelming success of modern digital devices, from smartphones to tablets, which is convincing automakers that they risk becoming obsolete and irrelevant. Already, many millennials see cars not as the ticket to freedom and self-expression but as an expensive hassle.

The global auto industry is beginning to realize the need to embrace modernity in a substantial, practical way. Leading the charge are the world’s oldest automaker and one of the newest.

Playing Catch-Up

This spring, Mercedes is launching mbrace2, a vehicle control and monitoring platform that spans the auto’s touchscreen, iOS and Android mobile applications, and remote assistance services. Since our preview of its features in January, the ongoing buzz has been that mbrace2 is consistent with a high-end brand like Mercedes. However, its most important feature has nothing to do with its apps. The genius is in the architecture. mbrace2 accepts firmware updates through the cloud, allowing Mercedes to update its fleet wirelessly and instantly. While this opens potential security holes (malware, anyone?), the concept holds a lot of potential.

In addition to delivering performance updates and bug fixes in real-time, Mercedes’ developers could deliver entirely new interfaces to users based on interface testing, car geography or usage patterns. Mercedes will eliminate the necessity of a dealer touchpoint, maintaining a consistent relationship with the user experience wherever the owner goes.

On closer shores, Tesla Motors is attempting to fulfill its cofounder Elon Musk’s goal of having a car that is “actually, in some respects, ahead of what you have as your computer or personal electronics device.” Tesla’s Model S sedan and Model X SUV will both feature massive 17” touchscreens designed to manage climate control, entertainment systems and other traditional dashboard functions. The screen will also support third-party application development and allow users to plug in external devices via USB (though the full depth of external integration has yet to be determined).

There are two big things going on here. First, for better or worse, Tesla has gone all in on the touchscreen paradigm, showing guts that more traditional elements of the industry usually lack. The other news is the screen size. 17 inches is big for a laptop, and enormous for a tablet. A bigger screen means better visibility and less time spent searching for features when you should be watching the road. It also suggests the user experience of certain tablet functions - like Web browsing - could actually be better in your car than on your iPad.

Unlike other manufacturers, Tesla has decided (wisely) to use its own custom hardware for the core interface, rather than simply allowing remote control from a third-party device. A closed ecosystem has fewer variables, granting a level of stability and consistency that really isn’t optional in an automobile. For noncritical systems like music, go crazy and support what you like. For traction control, stick with the OEM.

The Future Is Flat

Like everything Tesla makes, its tablet controls are beautiful and seductive. If they prove popular, expect massive tablets to work their way down the food chain, displacing physical knobs and switches in more pedestrian vehicles.

While these will initially surface as somewhat clunky bolt-on options, luxury models of many car lines could soon be sporting Tesla-like tablet dashboards.

That’s not necessarily a good thing.

Tablets, of whatever size, require two things to work properly: eyeballs and fingers. A gesture-aware tablet needs even more of both. In a moving car, you could argue that eyeballs should be on the road and fingers should be on the wheel. Heck, distracted driving is already enough of a problem to warrant its own domain: distraction.gov.

Tesla mitigates these risks by directing some of the tablet’s content to the driver’s console and giving a nod to complementary voice controls. But Tesla wouldn’t be investing so much in the tablet if it weren’t the company’s go-to UI for the near future.

Ford and other automakers are actually pretty far along with voice controls as a primary interface, and these have potential to become useful additions to today’s familiar tactile knobs and switches. But thumbs-up to Tesla for trying something big, because it’s about time today’s cars were cooler than our grandfathers'.

For more on advanced automobile UI systems, check out ReadWriteWeb’s series on Connected Cars.

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock. Tesla image from TeslaMotors.com.