The interior of your car is being dramatically transformed as the aged meters and analogue gauges on your dashboard are being replaced by hi-tech digital screens. It’s becoming the norm to control your vehicle from a large touch screen placed square in the central stack, and here’s what you should know about it.

It’s time to reach out and touch somebody—or at least, your car. For decades, it’s seemed like car interiors were stuck in some sort of inertia. While the world around us became a digital panapoly adorned with LCD plat panels, when we sat behind the wheel, we stared at controls from the last century.

Knobs controlled our heating and cooling systems, dials tweaked our audio preferences, and we even had to play our iPods using microcassette adapters. But no longer – the auto industry is quickly catching up with the new millennium and outfitting the latest models with fully digital dashboards. 

If you don’t already own a car that uses a touch screen as its central command centre, you likely will soon. Here’s what you need to know before you go poking around (literally).

It may seem like touch screen technology is newfangled gear evoking the emergence of some sort of technological zeitgeist marking the new millennium of automotive technology, but the truth is that in-car touch screens have been around as long as car phone. 

General Motors Co. was the first auto maker to experiment with touch screen technology in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Back then instead of flat-screen digital LCD panels serving as the basis for touch-based interfaces, older CRT monitors were used. Cars like the Oldsmobile Tornado offered such a console, with features like calendars and even hands-free cell phone connectivity.

In 1990, GM renamed the Tornado to the Trofeo. One of its top-billed features was a “Visual Information Center” option – a dash-mounted touch screen CRT that could control your car’s thermostat, radio, and offered such modern wonders as a trip fuel mileage calculator.

Influenced by innovations made in the production of smartphones and -car touch screens likely use one of two technologies to recognize the taps of your finger as commands. There are resistive touchscreens, which use glass or acrylic panels coated with electrically conductive layers in-between the panels. The screens are separated, but pressed together when you apply pressure with your touch. This results in resistance to the electric current flowing across the screen, which results as a command in the place you’ve tapped.

There’s also capacitive touchscreens, which is now the most common technology found in smartphones and tablets. This uses a glass layer coated with a charge-storing material. Circuits located at the four corners of the screen measure for the discharge of this layer when touched. When a finger touches the screen, it causes a change to the circuits and the X and Y coordinates are detected and taken as a command.

Car touch screens are typically located in the centre stack area of the console. They come in a variety of different sizes. For example, the new Volkswagen 2013 Golf models will offer options for a 5-inch, 5.8-inch and 8-inch screen. An 8-inch screen is used by the 2013 MyFord Touch system, and the Fisker 2012 Karma currently has the largest touchscreen with a 10.2-inch panel. But that is soon to be beat—by a fair margin—by the Tesla S sedan, which offers a mammoth 17-inch touch screen.

Settling on a touch screen interface that would offer drivers lots of controls but still be simple enough to use intuitively hasn’t been easy for auto makers. 

After Ford debuted its new version of Sync at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show with the MyFord Touch system, many auto journalists panned it for being too complicated to use. There were too many menus to sort through, and it proved too distracting to the driver, some media reports said.

Consumers supported that sentiment in a J.D. Power study based on 73,000 owners for the first 90 days of the 2011 model years. So Ford went back to the drawing board and has redesigned the MyFord Touch system for its 2013 models. 

Most of the redesign has been a cleaned up and simplified home page. Now the screen focuses on four main areas of information: your phone, navigation, entertainment, and climate. An icon in the upper-left hand corner indicates if your cell phone is paired and connected via Bluetooth. The system uses larger buttons defined by sharper graphics and indicates when users can tap multiple times to dig into new menus. Plus, Ford is saying the interactions will be twice as fast as the previous system.

Volkswagen’s 2013 Golf models will feature 3D graphics on the display. It will also have a handwriting recognition feature so users don’t have to use a virtual keyboard to type out their destinations into the GPS. The screen’s interface has MirrorLink to appear like your smartphone’s screen. Proximity sensors detect when you move your hand close, and switch from “display mode” to “operating mode” to make certain features larger, and easier to tap quickly.

The Fisker 2012 Karma pushes back when you touch—vibrating slightly to give you that haptic feedback when you’ve made a successful tap. The touch screen acts as the car’s command centre for TomTom-powered navigation, iPod, Bluetooth, and climate control. The main functions areas are organize along the left side of the screen with icons stacked in a vertical bar. 

The control elements avoid text in favour of graphics. A unique design for Fisker’s climate control is a simple dial that can be turned up or down. The phone screen shows your device is connected with a green icon, and displays a large number panel to dial numbers. The bottom of the screen is lined with short-cut buttons. 

With so much space to work with, the Tesla S touch screen basically operates like a tablet computer. It will even support third-party applications sometime after launch. The Google Maps navigation feature includes the ability to look at live traffic updates.

Other interface technology could soon be influencing in-car controls for infotainment systems. South Carolina-based Clemson University is researching whether gesture recognition – similar to Microsoft’s Kinect – could be used in cars. Such an interface could even replace your steering wheel, researchers say.

The components powering powering your newfangled car radio are already more sophisticated than a desktop computer you would have bought just 10 years ago.

Nvidia, known for its advanced GeForce graphics technology for PCs, released its low-power processor Nov. 9 of last year. The chip is being commonly integrated into many in-car technologies, boasting a quad-core CPU that activates when in use, but running on a power-saving fifth “companion core” that is used when in standby mode.

The Tegra 3 is also being used by top-of-the line tablet PCs now, so your car’s tech is comparably powerful.