PH Origins: Head-up displays

The head-up display has become an increasingly common option in the modern car - and for good reason. Instead of having to take your eyes off the road, and refocus on instruments in different light conditions, a modern HUD simply projects information into your line of sight.

The difference can be invaluable. One American study revealed that if a driver's eyes wander off the road for more than two seconds then the chance of an incident doubles. Two seconds might not sound like much but, at 70mph, you'll have travelled over 200 feet - about the length of 14 cars. So, by enabling the driver to remain focused on the road, a HUD neatly helps counter this issue.

While automotive HUDs have become more prevalent over the past several years, they are still perceived by many to be a relatively new, innovative option. The reality, however, is somewhat different.

HUDs were first developed, like the origin of much automotive technology, for aircraft. In the early 1940s, engineers began projecting extra information, like radar images, onto the windscreen of night fighters - and the concept swiftly progressed to include the likes of artificial horizons and bomb aiming markers.

As the hardware advanced, it caught the attention of General Motors. Consequently, early design renders for its 1965 Mako Shark II concept - with its aircraft-themed interior - reputedly featured a HUD. The idea remained on the drawing board, however, until a prototype was tested in 1968. The XP-856 Aero Coupe concept, displayed in 1969, also featured a HUD. Complexity and cost, presumably, prevented the idea progressing any further.

Then, in 1985, GM bought the aerospace and defence contractor Hughes Aircraft for $5.2 billion. The acquisition allowed GM to diversify into new areas but, usefully, it also granted access to a vast amount of HUD-related knowledge.

Having merged Hughes with its established Delco Electronics arm, GM ordered that the newly formed Hughes Electronics Corporation develop a HUD for the upcoming fifth-generation Cutlass Supreme. It was to feature a new front-wheel-drive platform and modern engine options, and a HUD would be the technological icing on the cake.

Finally, in May 1988, the first production HUD was unveiled in the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Convertible Indy 500 Pace Car, 50 of which were offered to selected customers. The system was then made available as an option elsewhere.

GM just beat Nissan to the punch, too; Nissan had finished developing its first HUD in December 1987 but it didn't appear on the Maxima and 240SX options list until late 1988. Toyota soon joined the party, unveiling its HUD-equipped Crown Majesta in 1991.

It took the top-flight European brands, often considered the most advanced, far longer to get in on the action; BMW waded into the fray in 2003, Audi in 2010 and Mercedes-Benz in 2014 - with Mercedes citing potential driver distraction as its reason for avoiding the technology for so long.

HUDs aren't restricted to the realm of flagship models these days, mind, as the technology has trickled down through many manufacturers' model ranges. Okay, so some of the chintzy pop-up plastic ones aren't quite as technologically gratifying, but the benefits are the same.

Got an older car? Well, you need not feel left out - as there are several aftermarket and app-based solutions, many of which work well. Great, speaking from experience, for when your speedometer takes an unexpected leave of absence.

Lewis Kingston



P.H. O'meter

Join the PH rating wars with your marks out of 10 for the article (Your ratings will be shown in your profile if you have one!)

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Rate this article

Comments (79) Join the discussion on the forum

  • gofasterrosssco 11 Dec 2017

    I recently had a hire Opel Insignia for a few days which had one. I was pleasantly surprised how useful it was for speedo display and nav instructions.

  • saaby93 11 Dec 2017

    Anyone else tend to look straight through it and treat it the same as any other smudge on the windscreen?
    glancing back at the normal instruments

  • TooMany2cvs 11 Dec 2017

    Lewis Kingston said:
    It took the top-flight European brands, often considered the most advanced, far longer to get in on the action; BMW waded into the fray in 2003, Audi in 2010 and Mercedes-Benz in 2014
    Might we be forgetting somebody in that?

    Standard-fit in 2005 on the Citroen C6.

  • Ninja59 11 Dec 2017

    My 640D has it the only annoying bit is that indicators do not show in BMW's original config but it can show them with a wee bit of coding.

    The new g series cars have an even better one. Rarely do i look at the standard instruments there simply is no need speed, nav if being used is all displayed.

    The biggest issue currently is the restrictive ability to integrate heated windscreens with HUD as the two seem incompatible.

  • wideangle852 11 Dec 2017

    . . I recently drove a brand new Range Rover and absolutely hated a head up display, because of where it was, you end up looking at it too much rather than looking down the road . . at least you could switch it off . . a waste of money as an extra . .

View all comments in the forums Make a comment