Head-up displays (HUDs) in cars: what are they?

July 21, 2022 by

Head-up displays are becoming increasingly commonplace in cars; our guide tells you all you need to know

Head-up displays originated in military aircraft, but they have now made their way to cars. While once the preserve of high-end models, as is often the case with technology, head-up displays have trickled down to more mainstream cars.

The idea behind a head-up display is that important information, such as the car’s speed, can be projected into the driver’s line of sight, allowing them to keep their ‘head up’, rather than having to look down at dials and gauges, taking their eyes off the road as they do so.

This article will guide you through the two different types of head-up display, cover their pros and cons, and help you decide if they’re worth seeking out, or paying to have one fitted as an optional extra.

The HUD in a BMW iX; the green lines indicate assist systems are active; red (rather than green) ’51’ indicates the driver is speeding; circular warning sign shows the driver is following too closely

What does a head-up display do?

Precisely what information is shown on a head-up display will vary depending on the car, but at a bare minimum you should expect the vehicle’s speed to be displayed.

Some systems allow you to configure what information you want the head-up display to show, with common choices including:

  • The prevailing speed limit
  • Sat-nav route guidance
  • Time to your destination
  • If driver-assist systems (such as cruise control and lane-keep assist) are activated

Some head-up displays will show you the the vehicle’s adaptive cruise control is tracking the car in from, displaying a green line under the lead vehicle to indicate this.

The green line under the lead vehicle shows the adaptive cruise of the Audi Q4 e-tron is tracking it

More sophisticated HUDs even feature something called augmented reality, which superimpose sat-nav route guidance that shows animated arrows pointing down the road you should be turning into.

What are the different types of head-up display?

There are two types of head-up display: those that project directly onto the inside of the windscreen, and those that project their information onto a small dedicated screen that rises up from the top of the dashboard when the HUD is turned on.

Cheaper HUDs may project their image onto a small screen that rises from the dash

Systems that project onto the windscreen are generally more favoured by drivers, as some may find pop-up ones unpleasing to the eye.

Why are head-up displays fitted in cars?

As well as appealing to fans of technology, head-up displays bring safety benefits, as drivers spend less time taking their eyes off the road, while their eyes do not need to refocus when looking back and forth from instruments to the road.

The HUD of the Mercedes S-Class can show animated arrows that indicate where you should turn

What cars have a head-up display?

The first car to have a head-up display was the 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, and today they can be found amongst most segments of the market.

It used to be the case that more expensive cars have HUDs that display on the windscreen, while more affordable models may project onto a little pop-up screen. Today, manufacturers are erring towards windscreen projected HUDs as the technology becomes more affordable.

The current Ford Focus, launched in 2019, for example, can be had with a HUD that projects onto a small screen that rises up from the top of the dashboard. By comparison, the latest Vauxhall Astra, launched in 2021, projects its HUD directly onto the windscreen.

Is it worth getting a head-up display?

You may well find a head-up display a wise option, particularly if the HUD in question projects onto the windscreen. HUDs are helpful, smart pieces of technology that many drivers quickly find themselves relying on. If you’re unsure, try to test drive a car with a HUD to see if you like it, or speak to friends and colleagues who may have a car with one to see how they get on with the system.

Depending on the model of car, you will likely need to pay extra for a HUD. The Vauxhall Astra comes with one in top-spec Ultimate trim, whereas the Volkswagen Golf allows you to specify one individually for £670.

Go for a BMW 5 Series and you can either get a HUD as part of the £2,495 Technology Package (which includes a wi-fi hotspot and upgraded stereo, among other things).

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