Ram’s iPad-size touch screen emerges as hottest add-on in trucks

Gabrielle Coppola
Bloomberg News
The big 12-inch iPad-like display has helped vault the Ram 1500 into second place in pickup sales.

To stay competitive in the U.S. truck market, outdoing rivals on torque and towing capacity with brute engines under the hood isn’t enough anymore. Winning over truck owners means your dashboard display screens have got to be big, too.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV proved this with its redesigned Ram 1500 pickup, which features an Apple iPad-inspired 12-inch touch screen in the center console. The big display has helped vault the laggard truck line into second place, surpassing General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Silverado and seizing a 23% share of the fiercely competitive large truck segment in the first quarter, Edmunds said.

Automakers are “really targeting the interior of the vehicle to try to differentiate themselves,” said Kyle Davis, an analyst at IHS Markit. “Ram was early to the market regarding trucks for this kind of display, but we do expect others to catch up rather quickly.”

Traditional truck marketing usually revolves around playing up a vehicle’s brawny masculinity, not elegant touch screens — a reflection of the mostly male buyer base that wants to haul trailers or construction materials.

But as Americans ditch passenger cars in droves, trucks are going more mainstream, doubling as family haulers on top of their work duties and drawing more female buyers along the way. Automakers have also gone upscale, nudging pickup prices to records with luxurious legroom, top grain leather and all the technology and connectivity of a premium sedan in their highest-trim trucks.

Fiat Chrysler, which has struggled with quality issues for years with many of its U.S. models, ranks in the top five with its infotainment system, and in the top three for its seamless integration with smartphones, according to Consumer Reports.

“They just about hit a grand slam on designing the interior of this new truck, and that interior is definitely the benchmark in the industry right now,” said Sung Moon, vice president of business development at Detroit Manufacturing Systems, a supplier that builds the instrument panel for Ford Motor Co.’s best-selling F-150.

Jim Morrison, head of the Ram division in North America, said the brand wasn’t trying to take after Tesla Inc. or its trademark 17-inch console screens. Fiat Chrysler’s designers for the Ram 1500 just wanted something big enough to accommodate all the tasks people handle in their trucks — navigating routes, listening to music, talking on the phone, monitoring oil pressure and engine temperature — all without leading to drivers fiddling too much with controls while behind the wheel.

“It was just really a natural evolution that started with entertainment, because people spend so much time in their trucks,” Morrison said.

This year, 60% of vehicles produced worldwide have a touch-screen dashboard, up from 32% in 2014, according to IHS Markit.

Ford, whose F-Series pickup line has been the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. for decades, still has a comfortable lead this year, despite Fiat Chrysler’s gains. Still, the Ram’s screen has gotten the attention of executives.