If you’re used to looking at the navigation screen in new vehicles for the latest information being produced by the digital networks inside and connected to your car, get ready to move your head to the left a little bit: The future of data conveyance to drivers in automobiles is in head-up displays.
That’s according to Mike Juran, CEO of Altia, one of the most important suppliers of user-interface software and display systems and components for cars, including “GUI” and everything else that goes along with presenting information to drivers and passengers in convenient, meaningful and useful ways.
The move by auto OEMs and suppliers to emphasizing head-up displays at the bottom left of windshields is fed by factors ranging from safety concerns to interior design, from the power needs of electric vehicles to the ergonomics of autonomous vehicles — and the battle between automakers and Big Tech for the attention of drivers and passengers. But whatever the causes, the shift is picking up momentum as Altia and other suppliers meet increasing demand by automakers for an emphasis on head-up displays.
“Head-up display is going to be the killer app,” Juran, whose company is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, told me.
Head-up technology is a decade or so old and started with the projection of an image giving the car’s actual speed onto the lower part of the windshield in the driver’s view. Information about the speed limit at the vehicle’s location, often in the form of an icon that looked like an actual speed-limit sign, also was usually included.
But while automakers only very carefully and gradually added data points to head-up displays and began making use of augmented-reality technology there, what they conveyed on nav screens — those increasingly huge stretches of glass perched on the dashboard above the center console, initially used mainly to show maps — burgeoned much more. The screens became essentially the central computer monitor for the car, through which every function of the automobile now is displayed, from audio streams to climate control to mood-lighting settings, and still showing navigation information.
To provide a legible platform for all of this information, of course, the screens have grown in height and, mostly, width, to the point where nav-screen size has become an important indicator of just how upscale a vehicle is.
Unfortunately, at the same time, many automakers and their tech suppliers have done a poor job of designing the screens and associated controls to be truly user-friendly. Information isn’t laid out plainly or comprehensibly; it takes too much effort to get to the data point a user wants; drivers are required to do too much manual manipulation of associated screen controls in the center console. There’s just too much going on.
The auto industry as a whole hasn’t gotten significantly better at solving this problem since Ford several years ago created huge consumer confusion with its Sync infotainment system, cratering the company’s product-quality grades. And for all the things consumers find cool about Tesla, the execution of its big nav screens is one of the brand’s leading features.
But Juran insisted the primacy of the nav screen may be ending for a number of reasons, only starting with the industry’s general inability to make them truly user-friendly. For one thing, the growing thirst for electricity to enable nav-screen functions and displays may run head on into power-conservation design of electric vehicles, he said.
Meanwhile, head-up displays will become more important as the central conveyor of the information that will be most crucial to drivers as the industry heads further into the era of autonomous driving.
“Head-up displays are going to be the third leg to this stool of autonomous driving and EVs,” Juran said. “They will be the key to transitioning from driver control to semi-autonomous control. This is important because, if a driver is going to turn over control of the car for a while to read texts, or check e-mail, or doze off, then the car will be able to say, ‘You’d better pay attention now because I’m in a situation I can’t handle.’
“And when the driver looks up, that person wants to look at the road instantly and get all the available information in the easiest way without having to analyze all of the car’s screens. The head-up display is the only way to do that efficiently and in a timely fashion. Algorithms around identifying targets and spotting them and drawing them in augmented reality on the screen will be key.”
The importance of the area in the driver’s vision where head-up displays are found is underscored by the fact that government safety regulators “are controlling what goes on there because it is so sacrosanct,” Juran said. “You only want exactly the information you need there, and you’d better be able to see through it. You can’t block the driver’s view. So you need to have semi-transparent graphics that are very minimalist and the most important information. It’s not like a nav screen where you can play a movie or show dog photos.”
Partly as a result, Juran believes, head-up displays aren’t going to be the battleground for control that the nav screen has become. Digital-tech companies “want to be able to suck every ounce of your attention in the car and monetize [the screen] through advertising,” he said. Clearly, car companies are interested in monetizing the nav screen as well. But in the interests of safety, he said, “The goal of automakers has to be to minimize the attention you pay to the screen. That’s the battle today.”