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Heads up! 50 years of HUD tech

2015-03-13 10:30

WATCH IT ON THE WINDSCREEN: A typical head-up display through which a driver watches the road ahead while reading vital information - even a map. Image: General Motors

DETROIT, Michigan – From its 1965 Mako Shark II concept to its latest infotainment systems, General Motors has been developing its head-up displays (HUD) for half a century!

Jeff Boyer, vice-president of GM global vehicle safety, said: "We know that keeping eyes on the road is critical to safe driving - and recent studies back this up.

"Head-up displays can play an important role in maximising 'eyes-on-the-road' time, and that's what we're striving for."


By projecting pertinent information on to the windscreen and into the driver's line of sight, HUD systems allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road ahead instead of glancing at gauge clusters, infotainment screens and other devices.

GM reports that drivers can spend 134 milliseconds shifting their gaze to a gauge cluster and back to the road. At 112km/h, a vehicle will have travelled four metres in that time, roughly the average length of a car.

A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute's 100-car Naturalist study showed that the odds of a crash or near-collision more than double when a driver's eyes are off the road for more than two seconds.

In 2013 the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a study that stated visual and manual distractions, such as dialling or texting on a hand-held phone, greatly increased the risk of crashing.


There's far more work involved in developing head-up displays than just creating hardware; careful attention is paid to design and how it interacts with both the driver and other systems within the car.

John Weiss, an interaction designer for HUD systems, said: "We have to make smart decisions about what content goes into the HUD and how we can present it to the driver in a way that's easy to read and intuitive to use."

Modern HUDs, offered on more than 30% of GM vehicles sold in the US, can provide far more information than the first production system introduced in its 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme (see graphic at end of story).

Graphic designer William Thompson said: "HUD screens are tailored to the driver. We do lots of prototyping where we mock up different arrangements or graphics and get feedback from users."


Compared to a gauge cluster or infotainment touchscreen, the HUD space is constrained and forces designers to "think small" but legibility restricts how far elements can be downsized. Icons are simplified and lines must be at least four pixels wide. Fonts typically considered "grotesque" (letters are distinct and detached) are used.

The use of a colour screen allows designers more flexibility in selecting colours to project. Each hue is carefully selected to ensure it projects well and appeals to the driver.

Real-world testing helped designers to finalise colour selections. White, the brightest 'colour' in an LCD unit, is used for most fonts and displays.

Winter testing helped in the search for a hue that did not disappear against a snow background.

Weiss said: "We've done quite a bit of legwork to see which colours work best on the road. Some might look good when viewed on a computer screen but appear quite differently when projected on a windscreen."


Although the HUD duplicates information shown elsewhere on the instrument panel it doesn't require a second set of controls.

Weiss said: “You might have an incoming call notification pop up on both the gauge cluster's driver information centre and the head-up display but you don't have to dismiss each one separately.

“We make sure the control interface on the steering wheel can interact with both displays."

50 YEARS OF HUD: General Motors has worked on vehicle HUDs since its Mako Shark concept debuted in 1965. Image: Newspress / General Motors

Read more on:    general motors  |  technology

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