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In-car infotainment has largely been focused on the dashboard and instrument cluster, funnelling visual and audible information that often requires drivers to avert their gaze. Heads-up displays (HUDs) projecting outward to the windshield are a way to keep eyes and ears informed and focused on the road ahead.

Windshield HUDs have storied origins going back to fighter jets that helped pilots focus on targets without having to look at a display. They have been in cars for years, mostly in luxury brands. In fact, 10 auto makers – in 19 vehicle brands – currently offer windshield HUDs as an option.

Continental, a German automotive electronics supplier and one of the top HUD manufacturers, estimates that 1.5 million HUDs will be produced worldwide by the end of 2014, more than tripling to five million by 2018. IHS Automotive, a market research firm, projects an even higher penetration of more than nine million units by 2020.

"With every auto maker focusing on reducing driver distraction, HUDs seem like the best bet when it comes to moving information off of the dash and directly into the driver's line of sight," says Alex Bellus, a human-machine interface and usability analyst at IHS. "While the amount of information is still pretty limited, there is already a wide range of vehicle, safety, navigation, phone and audio information that can be displayed on the HUD with more to come."

The premise behind increasing in-car infotainment and connectivity in the cabin is designed to make the car "smarter" – yet there is still a delicate balance with driver distraction. HUDs can help keep eyes on the road, but there needs to be a multimodal relationship between the in-dash display, HUD, steering wheel controls and voice recognition, Bellus says.

"All of these systems need to be connected in some way," Bellus says. "HUDs are nice because they can filter out a lot of the extraneous information that isn't directly related to driving and only show the most important information right where the driver needs it."

HUD modules have gotten smaller, while providing a wider field of vision, but they are expensive, and don't fit all dashes. This has created an opportunity for Tier 1 suppliers and the aftermarket to jump in with combiner HUDs, modules that use a transparent plastic display to mirror information to the windshield. They require less installation space, making them ideal to integrate into both older and newer vehicles.

A combiner HUD's colour display projects over the end of the hood above the instrument cluster, but is marginally shorter optically than that of a windshield HUD. A driver would have to adjust to view a pop-up display that feels noticeably closer.

Integrating smartphones into this type of setup has seen some new concepts develop, like Navdy, a combiner HUD unit that displays basic car and navigation info, along with notifications from various apps and voice-activation controls. The product is set to launch in early 2015 for as much as $500 (U.S.).

There are more affordable alternatives, the least expensive being the free Hudway app for iOS and Android. Focused mainly on navigation, laying a smartphone down face up on the dash reflects the image onto the windshield, with voiced turn-by-turn directions.

Regardless of the HUD's origins or use cases, current features are limited. Continental is looking to change that by experimenting with augmented reality to offer optimal visualization for advanced driver-assistance functions, including automated driving.

"The AR-HUD only displays what is necessary in any given situation," says Jennifer Wahnschaff, vice-president of the instrumentation and driver HMI business at Continental North America. "This is important because the visual field for the augmentation is only two degrees below the driver's axis of vision, which places the AR-HUD visual field in the driver's direct line of vision.

"So, the principle we follow is that augmentation is designed to complement the real world when necessary, not to permanently superimpose itself on it."

This extends further as an "important piece of the puzzle" for automated driving, where AR-HUD technology could display the stripes separating lanes on the road, and the distance to a vehicle ahead, both of which could be particularly helpful in lower-visibility situations. Continental isn't likely to launch an AR-HUD until 2017, and it would probably debut in higher-end vehicles first.

Wahnscaff says this will make it easier for customers to accept this kind of automation. "Knowing about what the electronic systems are already capable of detecting will help to create trust in new driving functions."

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