What is an Electronic Instrument Cluster?

Lori Kilchermann

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

Military fighter jets often include electronic instrument clusters.
Military fighter jets often include electronic instrument clusters.

The electronic instrument cluster was originally designed for use in space vehicles, because the electronic instruments were deemed 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 into commercial aviation applications. The automobile industry soon realized the benefits of including an electronic instrument cluster in its sports car line-up, and eventually the gauges made their way into luxury vehicles and then into the family sedan.

Astronaut pilots must know how to use electronic instrument clusters.
Astronaut pilots must know how to use electronic instrument clusters.

Virtually no design changes were available for the electronic instrument cluster for years, except for the addition of a color choice and, typically, the gauges were illuminated with a blue or red light. Following in the military's footsteps, the auto industry soon offered the electronic gauges in a heads-up configuration much like the instruments found in a fighter jet's cockpit. The heads-up display option offered only on high-end sports cars and luxury vehicles projected the 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 all while never taking his eyes off of the road.

The downside of the electronic instrument cluster comes in the form of added cost. The gauge package has remained a high-cost option with the heads-up display continuing to be offered as an option only on high-end vehicles in any given model line. Also, repair to any damaged or malfunctioning gauges often requires the replacement of the entire instrument panel. While it is a rare occurrence, the burning out of a single lighting element can mean the entire electronic instrument cluster is in need of replacement.

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