Opinion: Do we need HUDs in our cars?

Most information placed on automotive HUDs is non-essential and intrusive.

Heads Up Displays or HUDs, like many things automotive, come from the world of aviation. Yes, the worlds of wings and wheels have a lot in common. The list of technology that has successfully made the jump is long and storied; the monocoque chassis, anti-lock brakes, fuel injection, Electronic Control Units, aerodynamic drag reduction, aerodynamic  vector control... the list is endless. 

Also on that list is the HUD or Heads Up Display. Earlier evolved from gyroscope-driven mechanical gun sights – that told pilots how much deflection to use in turning attacks – modern combat aircraft HUDs are much more complex. While they still remain gun and missile sights, modern versions are also information boards. And it’s these data-rich displays that evolved into automotive HUDs. The suits in marketing departments must have had a field day. Can you think of a cooler sales prop? 

Now, yes, logically having information in your line of sight makes it easier to keep your eyes on the road. Problem is, automotive HUDs often place information directly in your line of vision. And it doesn’t need to be there at all. Your car doesn’t need gun or missile sights, does it? What makes things worse – several times worse in fact – is that HUDs hide several nasty things behind them. Stuff like big potholes, exposed gutters or carefully camouflaged speed breakers. Now sure, HUDs don’t completely block your view, and pushing your seat up high does help; but why make spotting a nasty patch of road even more difficult than it is? And can you really drive safely on our roads without eyeballing what you are about to roll over? The easy answer is no. So more often than not I find myself switching the HUD off. Who wants to visit the puncture wala regularly anyway?

Future HUDs will be inherently superior. Some won’t obstruct your vision too much and on others you won’t need to constantly re-adjust your focal point. Still, having an image overlay the part of road you are about to drive over is counterintuitive. 

This is also probably why HUDs or helmet-mounted displays are still not used in Formula 1 or the top echelons of motorsport. A good HUD system, however, could be a boon in a modern data-rich racing environment. It just needs to be slightly off-centre or away from your direct line of vision, it needs to be dynamic and interaction must improve. 

Ferdinando Cannizzo, Head of GT Racing Car Design and Development at Ferrari says, “A HUD is promising. Of course, to be safe, the information displayed must be clearly visible without obstructing the track.” So data projected onto the windshield must be placed where the driver can see it easily,  but without blocking his view. And that’s exactly where the display is likely to relocate to in the not too distant future. Ready for Apple CarPlay floating up somewhere on your windshield?  I’m sure there’s a prototype somewhere.

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