Heads up displays for vehicles

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One of the first instructions we hear when learning to drive is, “keep your eyes on the road.” From checking speed, to following navigational instructions, to even setting the radio, it seems there is no shortage of reasons to glance away.  Now, more drivers have the option to have information projected in their line of sight, but does this mean added safety, or another distraction behind the wheel?

When private pilot Jerry Greenfield first saw a head-up display, it was in a flight simulator.

“You see the flight instruments, you’ll see your airspeed,” said Greenfield

Today, a growing number of automakers are building similar displays into vehicles: equipment that projects things like speed or navigation onto the windshield or into the driver’s field of vision. It is the type of feature Greenfield would like to see in his next car.

“I like the idea of being able to look straight ahead and seeing all the information I need without having to look away from the road,” he explained.

Ron Montoya, a Senior Consumer Advice Editor of Edmunds.com, has test-driven vehicles with the technology built in. He feels these types of displays make a drive safer.

“If you think about it when you look at your speed gauges or your navigation screen you are taking your eyes off the road even if it’s only for a brief moment,” said Montoya.

Some companies are developing displays designed for use in any vehicle, advertised to include additional functionality that would allow drivers to do things like receive and respond to text messages, or post to social media, all while keeping their eyes on the road.

“The technology seems promising, and it seems to sort of integrate a couple of smartphone features which we’re not really getting from the factory systems,” Montoya said.

Jacob Nelson, the Director of Traffic Safety Advocacy for AAA, says head up displays with essential driving information do have the potential to make drivers safer behind the wheel but he feels more testing is needed to study the impact they have on driver distraction.

“The color of the font, the size of the font, and the way in which it’s projected into the forward driving environment are all factors that can impact what the workload is that a driver might experience,” he said. “We don’t want to stifle innovation, but on the other hand we have to be careful about the safety consequences of introducing new technologies into the driving experience.”

Another concern of Nelson’s is the amount of information included in the display.

“The risk though is that if we are projecting information on the windshield or in the forward driving environment that isn’t integral to the core task of driving, then we’re overloading the driver,” he explained.

Ron Montya agrees.

His advice for car buyers considering purchasing a vehicle with a head-up display is to, “test it out for yourself and see if you want to make that decision and get that system.”

Right now head-up displays are built into a small number of car models, but experts point out that often technology appears first in high-end models and as it gains popularity and prices come down it spreads to more models within a vehicle fleet.

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