Augmented reality is coming to your car

The best AR apps may actually show up on your windshield.

Brian Cooley Editor at Large
Brian Cooley is CNET's Editor at large and has been with the brand since 1995. He currently focuses on electrification of vehicles but also follows the big trends in smart home, digital healthcare, 5G, the future of food, and augmented & virtual realities. Cooley is a sought after presenter by brands and their agencies when they want to understand how consumers react to new technologies. He has been a regular featured speaker at CES, Cannes Lions, Advertising Week and the Publicis HealthFront. He was born and raised in Silicon Valley when Apple's campus was mostly apricots.
Expertise Automotive technology, smart home, digital health. Credentials
  • 5G Technician, ETA International
Brian Cooley
3 min read

Augmented reality apps like Pokemon Go and Lego Studio have captured imaginations and headlines, but the really useful role for AR is likely to break out in cars from Mercedes, BMW and Land Rover first. It's a trend that could transform our vision of AR from the goofy to the essential, moving the conversation away from face-worn gear like Magic Leap and Microsoft Hololens.

Watch this: See how cars are coming alive with augmented reality

What is AR?

A quick refresher to correct some common misconceptions:

  • AR is essentially a layer of data over reality, not to be confused with creating an entirely different world like Virtual Reality does.
  • AR typically uses visuals, but can also use touch and sound.
  • AR typically adds to what you see but can also subtract, getting things out of the way.

Creating visibility

This is one of the most powerful paths for AR in cars because they so often suffer from obstructed visibility. GMC's 2020 pickups will offer a transparent trailer view option. 


The 2020 GMC Sierra offers a new AR option called Transparent Trailer Rear Camera View. It makes your trailer virtually invisible.


It uses a camera view from the back of the trailer superimposed over your actual view via the dashboard screen to make the trailer you're pulling vanish. Going the other direction, Land Rover is pioneering a similar AR trick to make the front of a 2020 Evoque disappear so the tricky terrain you're traversing doesn't.

Jaguar showed an early version of transparent pillar augmented reality back in 2014, but it has yet to come to market. The hangup may be with the technology to upholster the pillars in OLED, as opposed to the cameras. Samsung's Galaxy Fold had some issues with folding screen technology and carmakers tend not to adopt new tech until it's bulletproof.

Making maps understandable

Screens have revolutionized maps, but a lot of people still can't read one. AR can deliver navigation that requires zero comprehension of distances, angles or north orientation. 

If you've seen those Fidelity TV commercials that have you "follow the green line," you get the idea of where car navigation is going. Mercedes is an early mover in AR navigation with the latest A Class and GLE laying nav instructions over objects in a live camera view.


Mercedes 2020 GLE is perhaps the first car to offer an augmented-reality navigation screen.


Street names, turn instructions and building addresses all pop up as the next turn is approaching. In the future this will move from a dashboard screen to the windshield as Mercedes has demonstrated with its DICE concept of full screen head-up augmented reality on the road.

WayRay, a provider of technology to carmakers, recently rolled out a wide-screen laser holography projector that allows the creation of full screen AR. I sampled the WayRay tech at CES in 2019 and immediately realized not only AR's power to inform but also to distract. Developers will need discipline (and maybe some federal regulations) to deliver the former, not the latter.

The cure for the boring drive

A more speculative use of AR in cars was shown by Warner Bros and Intel at CES 2019 in the form of a Batman experience for self-driving cars. Stay with me now; I agree it's a little silly, but it does point to something important. A virtual butler Alfred is presented to create confidence that there is "someone" in charge of the machine, addressing a common source of nervousness about autonomous vehicles. When underway, the world outside is augmented to be a virtual Gotham, curing the tedium of the same old drive every day. The augmentation is so rich it borders on being virtual reality, though without the face-worn goggles that are such an impediment to VR's usage.


Warner and Intel envision a car interior so steeped in AR it's almost a virtual reality. Gotham could replace the scenery on your same old boring drive to work.


AR before you buy

Carmakers are embracing AR as a way to get you engaged with their cars before you even see them. The Mission E AR app from Porsche and Audi's Quattro Coaster AR app are both clever, game-style ways to get you to engage with these brands before you set foot in a showroom or auto show booth.


Audi's Quattro Coast AR app is a game play way to get people engaged with their cars beyond the usual matrix of model, color, cost and price.

Audi Norge

BMW offers an AR car configurator that I find particularly prescient: Pick your car, colors and options, walk around the car, get in it, and have all of that take place in your own driveway or garage. The future of car sales should start with AR delivering a car to you for the first look.