MADISON, Wis. — Perhaps you've seen a head-up display (HUD) or windshield projection in a car -- at tradeshows or in a really rich friend's luxury car. Even the acronym HUD looks cool (shades of Paul Newman). Who wouldn't want a car with technology that has mainly been available in fighter jets (shades of Tom Cruise)?
However, two things absolutely turn me off about past and current automotive HUDs: poor graphics (reminiscent of 1980s computer games) and tiny screens. What I want is a windshield-wide head-up display that overlays a fat yellow arrow to show me my next turn when I'm driving. I expect it to be somewhat equivalent to the yellow first-down line overlaid on TV when I watch football games.
A few companies, such as Texas Instruments with DLP technology and NVidia whose graphic chip is now making deeper inroads into the automotive market, say they're contributing to the evolution of the automotive HUD in a big way.
Mariquita Gordon, general manager of the DLP embedded business unit at TI, told us DLP technology can offer "extremely brighter colors, wider field of view, and much more compact size" than anything available today (typically a TFT LCD-based projection system).
Danny Shapiro, automotive director for NVidia, told us that his company's GPU is fully capable of producing smooth HUD graphics at a high frame rate. "The run-time engine inside the GPU processor enables real-time rendering of information" such as fuel level, temperature, or analyzed data coming from the advanced driver assistance system (ADAS).
In July, IHS Automotive called HUDs that can project an image that floats about 7.5 feet in front of a driver's eyes the "optimal display technology for cars." The firm forecasts that worldwide sales of HUD-equipped cars will increase from 1.2 million units in 2012 to 9.1 million in 2020. "Sales this year are forecast to climb 7 percent to 1.3 million units."
Law of physics
But Mark Boyadjis, senior analyst for infotainment and HMI at IHS Automotive, told us much of the market growth is still being driven by combiner HUDs -- typically small, translucent screens located in front of the driver. These devices, which combine a projector and a display, don't use the windshield as a display. Instead, they use a small flip-up screen on the dashboard.
Projector HUDs typically use a small TFT LCD that comes out of the dash. Light is directed to the base of the windshield via uniquely shaped mirrors, and a filter reflects the image. The image is projected on the windshield in the driver's line of sight.
As for HUDs large enough to fill the windshield and present an augmented-reality view to the driver, Boyadjis cautioned that those are still "10 years out." The problem is that a bigger projected image requires a larger TFT LCD, which can have heat issues when integrated inside a car. More importantly, a large device is hard to fit inside a dashboard.