Top Gun

The Car Windshield Is Turning Into a Computer Screen

To keep drivers' eyes on the road, cars are getting a third display to project information: the windshield

Cars are running out of screens. The dashboard is a jumble of numbers, icons, indicator lights, and gauges. In some vehicles, the display built into the center console is bigger than our televisions in certain rooms at home. But drivers' and passengers' appetite for more information isn't subsiding, so the dashboard and entertainment console are about to get a companion: the windshield.

At the Detroit auto show, which runs until Jan. 25, you'll find demonstrations of cars with built-in projectors displaying speed, range, turn-by-turn directions, and other crucial data along the bottom of the windshield. Head-up displays—developed to keep fighter pilots' eyes on the sky rather than on the instruments in the cockpit—have existed in some form for cars since at least the 1980s, but they've mostly functioned as a novelty for high-end clientele. In the past year, however, HUD technology has made its way into some Mazdas and Priuses as a way to manage information overload for everyday drivers.

Automakers have been adding a flood of information designed to keep drivers safe—some requested by customers, others mandated by governments—but it risks having the opposite effect. As weird as it sounds, projecting text and graphics onto the windshield may be less distracting to drivers than forcing them to look down at cluttered in-car screens—or worse, their mobile phones. A HUD, which sits within the driver's line of sight, would be free of "check engine" and "change oil" lights, and only display the alerts a driver might need at any given moment. Hyundai, Toyota, and General Motors expect the HUD to go mainstream very soon.

"It's about keeping the driver's eye on the road," says Carson Grover, a product planner at Hyundai Motor America. "For a long time, we thought a HUD was kind of a gimmick. Now we see this as a technology that's going to get more important over time."

Hyundai’s augmented-reality head-up display could help identify pedestrians and pets.

Hyundai Motor America

Hyundai offers HUDs as an option on its luxury models, including the Equus and Genesis, and the company plans to eventually build the feature into more affordable models, Grover says. Some Toyota Prius, Mazda3, and Mini (owned by BMW) models are among the mass-market vehicles that offer HUDs today. In 2010, people bought just 380,000 car HUDs worldwide, meaning about 0.5 percent of vehicles sold that year were equipped with the feature, according to market researcher IHS. This year, that total is expected to jump to 2.3 million, and by 2021 it could reach 11 million, according to IHS analyst Mark Boyadjis.

"That's a potentially conservative number as we've been hearing a lot in the last six months from you-name-it about HUDs," Boyadjis says. "It was a very small party. Now, if you're a tier-one supplier in automotive electronics, you're looking at HUD because it's such a growth market."

Like any new technology, its history can be traced back to a Tom Cruise movie. In 1988, two years after Top Gun introduced the technology to a mainstream audience, GM equipped an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme with a rudimentary HUD that projected the car's speed onto a screen. Doesn't it take your breath away?

Over the years, different variations of the HUD have appeared in some Corvettes, Nissan's 240SX, and a few other vehicles. The gadget didn't catch on. It was expensive and repeated the same limited data points that were already on the dash—usually speed, revolutions, and gas levels.

As cars have gotten smarter, often the way they present information has not. New software-driven features, such as blind-spot detectors, lane-change warnings, and backup sensors, are getting piled on top of the existing data drivers have come to expect. Turning the output of all of those systems into something that will help, rather than distract, will require careful balancing and sophisticated software.

While Google focuses on the long-term goal of getting cars to drive themselves, tech companies such as Texas Instruments are working on ways to present new safety data in more intelligent ways. A kind of projection system containing millions of tiny mirrors, called digital light processing, could produce clear images across a wide area of the windshield, regardless of whether it's sunny, cloudy, or nighttime, says Jeff Dickhart, an automotive product manager at TI. A major challenge is to develop a projector that doesn't get cooked when a car is parked in the sun all day. Such HUDs should be in vehicles by 2016, he says.

Texas Instruments’ DLP technology enables a field of view up to 12°, which is two times wider than existing solutions today.
Texas Instruments’ DLP technology enables a field of view up to 12°, which is two times wider than existing solutions today.
Source: Texas Instruments DLP Products

Eventually, cars will use radar and other sensors to identify pedestrians that aren't clearly visible—for example, when it's foggy or raining—and then project a warning image onto the windshield pointing to where the possible hazard is, Dickhart says. "The driver-distraction problems continue to grow as more and more consumer electronics makes its way into the front of your vehicle."

This kind of augmented-reality technology is expected to appear in one or two high-end models as early as this year, according to Boyadjis, the IHS analyst. In the interim, automakers are already feeling the pull from consumers who want the glass in front of them to do more than keep the weather out. "As people want more and more technology in their vehicles, it's become a very sought-after feature," says Craig Taguchi, a spokesman for Toyota.

Mini Dash

The head-up display on the Mini. Flip the toggle on the dash and the optional full-color HUD snaps into action.

Mini USA

Most of the current implementations won't make you feel like you're in the cockpit of a fighter jet. Many automakers are going with less expensive versions, such as combiner HUDs, which project information onto a small, transparent screen mounted just above the dash, says Boyadjis. That's what some Mini models use. Eventually, most new cars will have projectors that shine directly onto the windshield, Boyadjis says.

More than a quarter-century after that rad Cutlass Supreme, GM now offers HUDs in some Cadillacs and Buicks. "It is a technology that enhances driver convenience and minimizes drivers taking their eyes off the road," says Daniel Flores, a spokesman for GM. "As with any technology, as it is developed and improved, costs typically come down. So going forward, there could be opportunities to spread the technology down market."

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