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Head-up displays

By Samantha Stevens, 12 Oct 2015 Car Advice

Head-up displays

Are head-up displays a help or a hindrance on the road? WhichCar takes a look at what they are.

Just as steering wheels have evolved to ensure drivers keep their hands on the wheel, so to have technologies to help keep the eyes on the road in the form of heads-up displays (HUDs).

Originally debuting in fighter pilot cockpits more than 50 years ago, the HUD is information projected onto the windscreen or a pop-up transparent device within the eye-line of the driver.

It has evolved into a sophisticated projection of driver information. The car’s speed, GPS directions and system information or infotainment is now more accessible at a glance without taking eyes off the road ahead. Think about it: when travelling at 110km/h on the highway, it takes a second to glance down at the instrument cluster to check your speed. It then takes another second to re-focus on the road ahead. By then, you’ve travelled 60 metres essentially blind.

Do it enough times and your eyes will get tired and your brain a bit fuzzy through all the effort of re-focusing distances. Add all the glances at the radio, the GPS, the car’s info systems… On a long journey, you could be ‘blind’ for kilometres.


There are typically two systems: a laser or light source projected on to the windscreen or glass panel in front of the driver; or a digital mirroring system to reflect the images onto the windscreen.

A basic HUD system displays plenty of information for the driver including the current speed of the vehicle in a digital format, GPS information counting down the distances to turns, and the best lane to be in for the next intersection.

If you think this kind of technology doesn’t come cheap, think again. There are factory units as well as aftermarket ones available for helmet visors and car windscreens, and basic units that plug into your car (or display from a GPS) which start from around $100.

Cheaper HUD systems are susceptible to glare, so the more you pay (or the more expensive the car) the more informative and integrated the unit will be.


In recent times, HUDs have gone another step further into the realm of ‘augmented reality’, which we think is pretty cool.

Augmented reality systems add a deeper layer of information by placing imagery and virtual signals directly in-line with the driver’s view.

Not confined to a small section of the windscreen, the system places graphics – some systems are even in full colour – into the driver’s entire forward field of vision.

Typically connected to the driver safety and information systems – and utilising radar and GPS – the system can show the painted lines of the road in the deepest fog and trace the shape of vehicles lost in the pea soup ahead.

Some manufacturers are already taking guidance a step further in their prototypes, creating a ‘360-degree virtual view’ system which not only utilises full graphics, but a ghost car as a guide to follow instead of typical GPS arrows and street names. It must feel like the driver is immersed in the Gran Turismo video game.

Other systems already in production utilise infrared to outline animals and pedestrians near the roadside at night and even warn of impending accidents, lane drifting and other hazards with big flashing warning signs on screen, be it day or night.

Ironically, the intention of a HUD is to bring the road back in to focus and away from the distractions that pull our eyes away from it, not to clutter up our field of vision with an overload of information and entertainment.

Before long, HUDs will probably be connected to all the apps on our phones. The argument being that it is best to have our heads up reading Facebook and Twitter messages than sneaking peeks across to the passenger seat. Navdy is a step toward this, projecting social media messages and GPS directions, while also featuring touch-less gestures to flick through messages and answer calls by swiping in the air near the device.

Of course, to do that, you need to take a hand off the wheel.


Want to look into a car with a head-up display? Here are our picks.