When you get behind the wheel of a Tesla Model S or Model X, one of the first things that you notice is the ginormous screen in the center console. It’s like a 17-inch iPad sitting right there in the middle of your car, displaying everything from driving directions to music choices. The touchscreen is so large, that the real estate can be subdivided to showcase different functionalities. But for as great, and big, as the Tesla display is, it still has one major flaw that it shares with every other center console screen: A driver has to look down to use it.
Everyone knows that texting and driving is a big no-no. Judging from the number of Instagram Stories I see filmed by people behind the wheel, that message doesn’t seem to have seeped down to social media-ing and driving, unfortunately. But even glancing down at a screen for a split second to find out where to turn means a driver’s eyes aren’t on the prize (i.e., the road) and that can have grave consequences. That’s why head-up displays (HUDs) are becoming the focus of a lot more automotive innovation.
As the name suggests, HUDs project information onto your field of vision. In the case of cars, that means the info is displayed on your windshield, so that a driver can see how fast he is going, for example, without looking down and having to refocus his eyes on the dashboard. The system started with people who really can’t afford to be distracted while navigating: fighter pilots. Instead of forcing pilots to scan an instrument panel, head-up displays were developed to project the most relevant info onto the plane’s windshield.
Now, that technology is popping up in more and more cars. A number of automobiles currently offer head-up displays, primarily in the luxury category. BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Range Rover are among the car companies with HUDs as an option. The transition is also starting to trickle down to mass market models, such as the Mini Cooper and Toyota Prius. HUDs require specially treated windshields and the optical technology needed to power them isn’t cheap. But, as with most tech developments, as adoption of HUDs increases, cost decreases.
Lexus recently announced that its 2018 flagship sedan, the LS 500, would have the world’s largest head-up display as an option. Up until now, most HUDs have been on the smaller side. That means either packing a lot of info into not a lot of space, which can be hard to read, or not showing a lot of info, which can be less useful. But the LS 500 will give car buyers the choice of having a 24-inch color HUD installed. At that size, it starts to rival the dimensions of the dashboard itself, meaning a driver could process all the data of traditional gauges in an easy-to-read, non-distracting transparent format on the windshield.
That development will likely set off a series of copycats. So don’t be surprised if you see automakers start bragging about the size of their HUDs (that sounds kinda dirty, doesn’t it?) in the near future.
For those that want the convenience of a HUD but aren’t necessarily in the market for a new car, there are a number of aftermarket options. Navdy and Garmin both make devices that sit on top of your dashboard (you’ll probably have to ditch the bobble hula dancer) that cost less than a grand and offer up much of the same functionality as pricier manufacturer options.
Of course, the biggest challenge for widespread HUD adoption isn’t tech hurdles, it’s driverless cars. Because as soon as humans aren’t the ones responsible for turning left or right and the person sitting in the front left seat (will it be called the driver’s seat anymore?) is free to actually be distracted, the utility of directions displayed on a windshield evaporates. But that is still a few years away, and in the meantime you’re better off using your windshield for more than collecting pigeon poop. Your life could depend on it.