ScreenDrive: The $400,000 Rolls-Royce Dawn plays it safe with limited tech

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Cars have become expensive, rolling gadgets that are full of screens, speakers, and sensors — but are they actually good gadgets? In our new series, ScreenDrive, we’ll review cars just like any other device, starting with the basics of what they’re like to use.

The construction workers on 59th Street loved to stare. During my day of driving the Rolls-Royce Dawn around, I took the car through three boroughs — Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens — and stopped people in their tracks in each one. A construction worker in the city looked back at me while I was stopped at a red light. I saw him whisper to his co-worker, and then he turned around, too. That guy said something aloud, and the rest of the team swiveled their heads to sneak a peek. I don’t blame them for staring; the Dawn’s a rare, attractive car that starts at $341,125; the model I drove costs $412,430. For that price, you’d maybe think I got a look at the future of driving tech in addition to a top-of-line, eye-catching ride. That’s not the case.

No, instead, Rolls-Royce played it safe. The company says its drivers own multiple cars, and their Rolls isn’t for everyday driving. It’s a status symbol in which most people are probably driven around. So, with that in mind, the company has taken a muted approach to its car tech. People flaunt the Dawn for its gorgeous exterior and interior details, not the number of cameras it has installed or its groundbreaking tech — at least that’s how Rolls-Royce seems to see it. Still, maybe some people want the option of more tech, like screens installed in the backs of the front seat headrests, or even Android Auto and Apple CarPlay (neither of which is available on the Dawn). Rolls-Royce doesn’t offer these add-ons and instead limits its tech risks by sticking with features that it knows will probably work fine and not anger anyone.


The Dawn succeeds insomuch as it fails. If you want tons of tech, this isn’t the car for you. But if you’re okay with spending $400,000 for a handcrafted, Bluetooth-equipped vehicle, the Dawn does the trick.

Displays

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The Dawn features a heads-up display; a 10.25-inch, 1280 x 720 non-touchscreen center console display; and a smaller LED display, called the Driver Information Panel, beneath the instrument cluster. This screen shows the same information as the HUD, including the area’s speed limit, upcoming directions, and phone calls. As I mentioned, the car doesn’t support Apple CarPlay or Android Auto; it only pairs with phones over Bluetooth. Barely any apps are installed, meaning there’s no Pandora or SoundHound or whatever else car manufacturers preload. I hate apps, so for me, this was fine. I do know some people are loyal Pandora listeners, though, and maybe they’d want it natively built into the car. I appreciated the fact that I didn’t have to fuss over extraneous apps and tech, like inconsistent gesture controls or instructional videos that teach me how to operate everything. I understood how to drive and operate the Dawn by just getting inside.


The most unique aspect of the Dawn’s main display is that you can’t control it through touch. I’m intrigued by this decision since carmakers haven’t reached a consensus on what drivers like best. In the Dawn’s case, it didn’t take me long to get used to not being able to poke at the screen and instead having to rely on a controller. I could write on the touch-sensitive controller or use my voice to input addresses, in addition to rotating it or pushing separate buttons. From this display, you can access eight menus that include the radio, multimedia, phone, navigation, vehicle info, settings, “office,” and apps. The feel of the software — the maps in particular — look and feel like BMW’s iDrive. (This makes sense considering the company bought Rolls-Royce in 1998, meaning the smaller British outpost has access to all of BMW’s software and engineers.)

This non-touchscreen risk proved successful, although I can’t say the same about the company’s odd choice of including a smaller screen beneath the instrument panel.


I don’t fully understand what the Driver Information Panel is designed to do. You can choose to display the HUD information there instead, but I find the windshield infinitely more preferable because you don’t have to look away from the road. The bottom display can show your lane control settings and whether you have night vision on or off (which the HUD won’t), as well as mileage. Yes, the Dawn includes night vision with pedestrian detection. I didn’t test it much during my drive, but it seems more like a gimmick than an actually useful application. Although, with that said, New York City has lots of lights.

As is the case with all cars, the heads-up display once again proved indispensable. It displayed the area’s speed limit, upcoming directions, and phone call details. The HUD refreshed promptly, except for a few times when it froze up after I tried to hang up a call. This was frustrating because I then had to grab my phone to make sure the call was disconnected. This happened more than once. I didn’t notice any lag time on the main display. Even still, the HUD got me where I wanted to go and let me focus on the road ahead.

Controls

Like I said, not having a touchscreen wasn’t a huge issue. You can turn, write on, or tap the Spirit of Ecstasy Rotary Controller, as Rolls-Royce calls it, to navigate the menus. (Rolls-Royce incorporated its signature Spirit of Ecstasy ornament into the controller by re-creating it with crystal and solid silver and then embedding it.) Using the controller wasn’t difficult or overly laborious except when I had to input an address. The dialer picked up on all my drawn letters, but I often opted for voice controls. The car assistant has the voice of a British woman, which I enjoyed — a cheery accent really does make you like your car a bit more. The Dawn always recognized my voice with no comprehension issues, although I did struggle to select a phone number. I have multiple numbers under one of my friend’s name, for example, so the Dawn asked me to select a row number for the number I wanted to call. The car doesn’t actually enumerate the rows, though; it expects you to count them, which is hard to do while driving. Also it doesn’t show these rows on the HUD, so if you’re trying to call someone while you’re driving, you’ll have to look over at the main display. Smaller buttons surround the controller to let you quickly switch between the radio, CD player, your phone, and navigation. These could be useful, but I often forgot which button was for what. I also had a hard time locating them while driving because I had to reach over the controller to get to them. There’s also larger buttons for going back or hiding the display beneath a wood panel.

The steering wheel includes a volume control wheel and a strange, vertical-button-control-wheel-thing that lets you either change tracks on your paired phone or the radio station. You can turn and push down on it, although it really felt like it should only be able to do one or the other. The volume controls are also slanted and small, which made me prefer the knob on the center console. To the left of the steering wheel, you can adjust the brightness of the screens with a random control wheel. As much as I was surprised by its existence, I appreciated the convenience because it let me to avoid the settings menu entirely. The less I have to purposely seek out and interact with software, the better. And generally, Rolls-Royce makes it easy to avoid fuddling around with its displays and interface.

Software

As I mentioned above, Rolls-Royce shares software resources with BMW, so for that reason, the tech feels similar to any iDrive-equipped car. The menu layout that depicts your options as icons to scroll through, the settings page, and even the pairing page all look like direct descendents of iDrive. The navigation is nearly identical to iDrive, too, and as I wrote about the 2017 5 Series, the layout and directions are intuitive. It’s a clean interface. During this testing round, I wasn’t impressed with the points of interest option. The system didn’t recognize or know where the Whitney or Jane Hotel were, which are two places I’d expect people to look up. For some reason, zooming in on a map wasn’t intuitive either. I simply turned the controller to zoom, but it didn’t immediately seem like the proper way to do so. Similarly to my major gripe with the new BMW 5 Series, I was unable to get messages from my iPhone to load on the display, even when I turned notifications on from my Bluetooth options. I’ve been told it should have worked, although I might need a special cradle, which costs more than $200. That’s annoying, but maybe not so much in a $400,000 car. Apparently BlackBerry SMS works over Bluetooth for all of you classic BlackBerry users. Heh.

I still find this messaging difficulty inexcusable. Navigation, phone calls, music, and messages are essential for modern driving. I just want to see my texts without an added cost. As an aside, the icons on the Dawn are oddly outdated, too. The radio icon looks like a radio from the 1950s or something, which, okay, I guess that’s a novelty.


Packages

The Dawn goes up in price depending on how you deck out the interior and exterior. On my model, the white paint job costs an extra $10,650. The custom interior cost more than $10,000 — contrast stitching alone costs $4,200. Lighting up the Spirit of Ecstasy ornament costs another $4,125.

The pricing of the packages speaks to how Rolls-Royce conceptualizes the Dawn. The majority of extra costs relate to interior and exterior details with no mention of tech. The heads-up display, Bluetooth pairing, and main console display are included in the base price. You don’t get many options for extra tech, other than night vision and active cruise control for $7,430. That’s okay, though, because let’s be real: everyone looks silly using gesture controls, and you want to look cool in your Dawn.

Rolls-Royce assumes you aren’t buying its car for the tech. That’s probably true. Instead, the Dawn is a collector’s item that will still look awesome in 2080, especially if you don’t have any outdated tech to age it.


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