Continental offers cheaper head-up displays for cars

With the company's simpler "combiner" HUD, more cars could overlay information like driving directions atop drivers' view of the road. But distractions must be kept to a minimum.

Continental's "combiner" HUD shows information on a separate screen rather than reflecting it off a car's windshield.
Continental's "combiner" HUD shows information on a separate screen rather than reflecting it off a car's windshield. Continental

Head-up displays, a technology that got its start overlaying useful information onto pilots' windscreens, is something of a rarity in cars. But a technology from auto-industry supplier Continental makes it cheaper and, the company hopes, more widely used.

The earlier HUDs with the more sophisticated mirrors cost about €1,000 euros (which converts to $1,346, AU$1,425 or £788). The German company didn't detail the combiner HUD price, but did say it was cheaper and is aiming for the "broadest possible use."

HUDs today project light onto the inside of a car's windshield; the light reflects toward drivers so they can see information like their speed or, in fancier implementations, navigation directions. But that approach requires careful matching of the projection system to the curvature of the windshield. Continental uses a mirror -- manufactured to extreme precision of 5 thousandths of a millimeter -- to ensure the driver sees an image free of distortion.

Continental's conventional HUD, in this case a model for BMW 3-series cars, uses a complicated mirror to avoid distortions when information is projected onto the car's windshield.
Continental's conventional HUD, in this case a model for BMW 3-series cars, uses a complicated mirror to avoid distortions when information is projected onto the car's windshield. Continental

It uses that approach with components sold to premium car brands including BMW, Audi, Mercedes. But to reach a larger market, the company on Tuesday announced a "combiner" approach that uses a separate, simpler screen that's attached between the steering wheel and the windshield. It's simply a flat reflector that requires no complicated mirror.The combiner HUD isn't just cheaper. It's also smaller, an important concern for the dashboard area that's already packed with electronics, car controls, vents, and more.

"With the combiner HUD, we are offering a system that can be easily integrated into whole vehicle families, as well as in particularly sporty cars with limited space in the cockpit," said Helmut Matschi, head of Continental's Interior division, in a statement.

The HUD work is part of a gradual overhaul to show how drivers interact with cars -- a field known as human machine interface (HMI). That's gradually changed over the decades, but in the electronic age, drivers are in danger of being overwhelmed by data even without the distractions of mobile phones.

An illustration of how Continental's combiner HUD works.
An illustration of how Continental's combiner HUD works. Continental

In olden times, cars had little other than gauges for speed, fuel level, oil pressure, engine temperature, and maybe engine speed. In the electronic era that is upon us now, way more data is coming to drivers: sat-nav directions; warnings that a driver is exceeding the speed limit or drifting out of the car's lane; alerts that a particular seatbelt isn't buckled or a particular door isn't fully closed; notices about fuel economy; incoming phone call alerts; tire pressure information; and electronic controls for heating, cooling, and radio settings.

Continental believes HUDs improve safety because drivers don't have to look away from the road as much. Carmakers, which place a high priority on safety, still must be conscious of overlaying only enough data.

Of course, there's another fix coming for the distracted-driver problem: self-driving cars, another idea Continental is hoping to profit from. Google and several carmakers are pursuing the idea, too. It could be the fix for distracted driving is to take away the driving, not the distraction.

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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