Heads-up displays becoming mainstream?

Navigation and dashboard data projected directly onto the lower edge of the windshield

Fighter pilots and video gamers are familiar with heads-up displays (HUDs) that overlay critical information on your field of view. With a HUD, there’s no need to glance down to a control panel to get updated. These displays are slowly working their way into cars and even helmets and eyeglasses.

It takes about a second to get information from your car’s dashboard, although we do it so routinely most people wouldn’t think they need that long. Checking the dash requires taking your eyes off the road, refocusing from far to near vision, locating the information, processing the data, and returning your eyes to the street. If you’re moving at 60 miles per hour, the vehicle will have traveled 88 feet in that time — plenty of time for a hazard to pop up and become too close to avoid. If that data is included in a HUD, it takes less than half a second, and your eyes never leave the road.

A second is probably an optimistic figure for an officer who is monitoring not just his dashboard instruments, but also a mobile computer display and the indicators of other emergency equipment. Given the number of fatalities in patrol car accidents, anything that improves situational awareness is a plus.

Coming in 2012
The next generation of BMW vehicles, coming out in February 2012, will have a HUD as a $1300 option. The display will appear at the lower edge of the windshield, reflected from foil embedded in the glass. The display is generated by light passing through a thin-film transistor (TFT) and a system of mirrors that project it onto the foil. The display will show navigation data, speed and cruise control settings, and warnings from BMW’s driver safety aids that include lane departure warning, night vision pedestrian recognition, rear-end collision warning, and adaptive cruise control that slows the vehicle as it closes the distance with cars ahead of it.

Another HUD application is from Making Virtual Solid, called Virtual Cable. Virtual Cable puts some of the dashboard data onto the windshield, but its name comes from a projected overhead “cable” that is superimposed on the road from the driver’s perspective. The driver sees his mapped path extending to the horizon, giving plenty of notice for lane changes and turns.

HUDs were an option on some 1980s model GM products, but were based on conventional cathode-ray tube displays that didn’t work all that well in cars. TFTs are in common use in laptop displays and are much more car-friendly.

As display technology matures, you may see a time when the windshield will be capable of displaying everything now appearing on your mobile computer. Corning has a short video showing the capabilities of some of their special-purpose glass products either available now or in the R&D pipeline.

Vehicle Deconfliction
A network-aware HUD could provide special safety features for first responders. A search on Police1 for stories on patrol cars colliding with one another turns up many examples where one cop clearly didn’t know where another one was coming from. A networked system could alert officers to the approach of another patrol unit or other emergency vehicle as an intersection grew closer. The system could even decide which unit should give way, and give the drivers appropriate directions.

This technology is new, and right now fairly expensive. As it matures, it will get cheaper and more refined, and you can probably look to see it in police package vehicles within three years.

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