Everything You Need to Know About HUDs

This Is Why Head-Up Displays Are the Future of Automotive Tech

Cars By Photo by Lexus

My first experience with a head-up display came in a Corvette, circa 2002. It was a small, simple, rectangular chunk of projected data that included RPM and speed. Its brightness was adjustable, and it was possible to scoot the display up or down and left or right. Even though that HUD was primitive, it worked — immediately, intuitively, helpfully. My eyes stayed forward — safety being the ultimate goal of automotive HUD systems, as they project crucial information where drivers are already looking — and all the intel I could need while rocketing down the road was right there, barely a glance away. It felt like a legit fighter-jet experience in that old ‘Vette.

Today’s HUDs, by and large, aren’t all that different from what appeared in the first iterations several automotive generations ago (the first consumer-grade HUDs appeared on 1988 GM cars), though they have certainly evolved. Resolutions are now higher, colors crisper, and displays brighter and larger. They mostly share the strategy of projecting graphics onto windshields from a display embedded behind the steering wheel in the dashboard, though some systems use small flat screens that stick out vertically from the dash just behind the image projector.

HUDs in Current Cars

Though HUD systems have historically been the purview of performance and luxury cars, they’re finally starting to trickle down to more affordable models: sedans like the Honda Accord and Mazda’s Mazda3, plus the MINI hatchback and Countryman and Toyota Prius. Usually, however, they’re mixed in with larger trim packages, rather than offered as an individual option. For instance, Honda only offers the HUD for the Accord in the top trim level, the Honda Accord Touring ($33,800), a package that includes a wide variety of other features like chrome trim, adaptive dampers and LED headlights. All of that adds up to a $3,000 price bump. Jaguar and Land Rover, on the other hand, do offer HUD as a stand-alone option, which, depending on the model, costs between $910 and $1,325.

Aftermarket Options

For those willing to deal with slightly clunkier options — and by “slightly clunkier” I actually mean “horrible visual warts on a smooth dashboard” — there are even aftermarket HUD systems. These units, like those from Garmin and Hudway, sit on the dash and utilize their own flip-up screens. A company called Navdy also offered an extremely slick aftermarket product for $500, with color graphics and a smartphone interface, but earlier in 2018 Navdy went out of business. Still, these dash-mounted units function well enough and are far more affordable than factory-installed systems. The Hudway model costs just $50 but it requires that a smartphone be physically inserted in the system as the projection tool, thereby removing it from convenient access. Garmin’s version is $150, but has its own projection and graphics system that accesses data from a smartphone via Bluetooth.

Most of the systems described above are fairly straightforward — they offer navigation, fuel or battery levels, speed and other data. But this fairly rudimentary capability belies the HUD’s overall importance. While the devices are increasingly becoming not only frequent options for most car manufacturers, they’re also providing a critical foundation for a key bit of next-gen automotive technology that’s presently in the pipeline: augmented reality.

Augmented Reality

In the future — likely nearer-term than you think — systems evolved from current HUD technology will eventually transfer virtually all navigation, vehicle-system, informational and even performance-driving guidance onto a beautifully integrated melding of virtual and real-world visuals. Think directional arrows “projected” directly onto the pavement ahead of you, pulsating highlights of animals in the road ahead lighting up the windshield or even animated visual callouts of great coffee houses as they go by. All of this displayed on a car’s large front glass or even the side and rear windows.

Lexus and Other Automakers Leading the Charge

The first true inkling of this future arrives this year in the new 2018 Lexus LS 500, the luxury carmaker’s flagship sedan. It has the largest HUD in the industry, at 24 inches wide, and is described by the company that supplies it, Denso, as a true “human-machine interface.” On our test drive late last year, it proved almost startling in its capabilities, showing animated navigation graphics as well as the car’s current status relative to lane centering and distance-keeping while its advanced adaptive cruise control is engaged. It also shows the positions of pedestrians just ahead and prioritizes and clearly presents information based on driving modes and driver awareness needs. The systems are also exceptionally well-tuned, with graphics that appear to “float” about 10 feet in front of the car, helping to minimize eye strain as focus changes with each glance. All that considered, it’s one of the most futuristic driving experiences out there.

Other carmakers aren’t far behind. BMW’s current-generation HUD includes precise, lane-specific navigation directionals as well as the ability to control audio system (channels, tracks, etc.) through the HUD. BMW was the first European manufacturer to offer a HUD in its vehicles, back in 2003, and it’s brought its technology a long way in the intervening years. Meanwhile, the Lincoln Navigator and Continental both deploy a HUD that uses digital light projection (DLP) technology from Texas Instruments, which allows for better visibility in brighter ambient-lighting conditions. It can be programmed to display phone and navigation information as well as temperature, lane-keeping and driving range.

Are HUDs Safe?

It’s this technology that will eventually pave the way for true augmented-reality integration — though there will be pitfalls along the way even with these presumably safety-oriented systems. A recent study from the University of Toronto found that HUD systems can overwhelm drivers with excessive alerts and warnings, becoming an extra distraction as drivers work to understand each alert. As exciting and futuristic as these systems are to use, the manufacturers will need to exercise some restraint in order to keep themselves from introducing new problems as they try to solve old ones.


Still, the ability to fold basic information alongside, say, driving lines and braking points on racetracks or rural twisties — something BMW Motorrad promises with its augmented-reality system designed for motorcycles — is pretty compelling stuff for enthusiast drivers, and it’s certainly the next big step from today’s HUDs. Eventually — several more big steps down the road — car dashboards will disappear completely in favor of AR systems floating out in front of drivers, and we’ll cross over into what today we consider to be pure science fiction.

Until then, of course, all these current systems — from Hudway’s dash appendage to Lexus’s sleek animations — go an awfully long way toward just helping drivers keep their eyes on the road in the first place. For that alone, it’s worth it to give them a look.

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