The history of the automotive heads-up displays from 2000s to 2020s

17 min read
Here, we continue recalling how the automotive HUDs evolved throughout the 20th century. Read how it started.

Automotive HUDs at the century’s close

All in all, around 1990s heads-up displays have leaped into modernity and came to look very much like today’s models.

Plus, they transitioned from a single-parameter (the speed) display to a smarter dashboard for RPM, oil temperature, error warnings, and more.

In terms of the tech that increases driver’s awareness, Cadillac went the furthest, embedding a night vision camera in premium versions of their DeVille.

Europe follows the suit

European car makers seem to have been eyeing the technology for decades and working out a thorough approach (read: investing heavily into research aiming at perfection).

And it wasn’t until 2003 when the BMW E60 was released that EU-made vehicles saw a HUD as an option.

Then in 2010, the first generation of Audi A7 received a heads-up display, while Mercedes was pretty much a latecomer and didn't introduce its HUD until 2014.

But let’s take a closer look at all of these, in order of appearance, starting with the bimmer.

2003 BMW 5-Series (E60)

In 2003, the BMW 5-Series E60 debuted with a HUD as a key feature of its ConnectedDrive system, a technology suite that continues to evolve throughout more than two decades. This early HUD was capable of displaying speed, directions, cruise control settings, and some fault warnings. Activating their M view mode would bring up a colored tachometer scale and the gear selected.
Navigation directions on the BMW E60 heads-up display.
Source: Wikipedia.
The HUD is activated with a button next to the light control unit, and adjusted with a knob on the center console and the media system's main display (it was not touchscreen yet, by the way).

This is how the display looks in action:
Official video from BMW demonstrating how the HUD works in the E60.
Source: BMW Group.
BMW 5-Series E60.

New HUDs from GM

Since GM were the leaders in heads-up displays in the 20th century, we can't leave out the new HUDs from Cadillac. New versions appeared in 2003 in the XLR model and in 2005 in the STS model.

2003 Cadillac XLR

The XLR, stepping up after the DeVille, showcased an updated HUD, moving away from the night vision capabilities to embrace a design more in line with the Corvette C5's HUD we talked about in the first part of the the first part of the article.
Cadillac XLR.
Source: Car and Driver.
Interesting fact – the XLR can be called a premium version of the Corvette, as they are built on the same frame. So they just had to add a HUD to the XLR.

The result is an LCD HUD from Nippon Seiki, which works in conjunction with a special laminated windshield incorporating Butacite® Wedged PVB interlayer from DuPont.
This is how that heads-up display looked to the driver. We didn’t manage to find an image from an XLR, and posted the one from a 2007 GMC Acadia, since they’re identical.
Source: XLR-NET.
The next-gen HUD in the Cadillac XLR again featured a speedometer, as highlighted in this POV video, alongside data on the audio system, gear indication, and adaptive cruise control (ACC) settings. However, the lack of navigation directions—a feature present in the Corvette’s HUD—was an unexpected omission for XLR owners.

2005 Cadillac STS

In 2005, GM released the Cadillac STS — the first model that got a multi-color heads-up display.
Cadillac STS.
Source: NetCarShow.
The HUD interface received a makeover, now featuring new functionalities, like driving directions, climate-control updates, and current track information.

Key indicators like speed, RPM, and proximity sensor data are displayed in green, while other information pops in yellow, blue, and red. Check out this video to see it all in action.
The interface of a heads-up display in the Cadillac STS.
Image source: General Motors.

Pixel-based displays and new functionality

The next step in the development of heads-up displays was evolutionary rather than revolutionary and focused on two primary areas:

  1. Upgrade in the display technology: the shift from sectional to pixel-based displays enabled the presentation of more sophisticated graphics, enhancing overall visual quality.
  2. Expansion of data sources: the introduction of cameras, blind-spot monitoring sensors, and other driving aids into vehicles increased the variety of data available for HUDs to display.
This period saw leading manufacturers, including Audi and Mercedes, alongside other brands globally making their mark in the HUD market.

2010 Audi A7 (4G8)

Audi's first HUD in the 2010 A7 featured striking graphics but was limited in the information it displayed, showing speed only as the standard view. Drivers had the option to add navigation and cruise control information via the media system settings.

Together with the HUD there is a large color display on the instrument cluster. It gives more detailed navigation tips and, by the way, can show a picture from the night vision camera.

This video shows how it all looks.
Audi A7 heads-up display.
Image source: Alpha Motors Wigan.
Other Audi A7 heads-up display widgets.
Image source: Audi A7/S7 Owner's Manual.
Audi A7.
Source: MotorTrend.

2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W222)

The W222 introduced Mercedes-Benz's first foray into HUD technology.

Although it didn't present any groundbreaking features — leading to discussions on forums and comments under videos where users questioned Mercedes' decade-long wait (especially since BMW had introduced HUDs back in 2003) — it stood out for its era.

The HUD offered speed, navigation, and the standard features expected of such technology, with the notable addition of current speed limit displays, rounding out its capabilities impressively.
Mercedes-Benz heads-up display widgets.
Source: Daimler Chrysler AG.
According to MB's press release, their HUD features a full-color display with a resolution of 480 x 240 pixels.

It uses high-power LEDs to project a virtual image around 8.3 x 2.8 inches (21 x 7 cm) directly into the driver's line of sight.

An integrated light sensor, situated near the roof's top edge, automatically adjusts the display's brightness to match external lighting conditions.
Advertisement of heads-up display in 2014 Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W222).
Source: Mercedes-Benz USA.
Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W222).
Source: Autoweek.

2017 Lincoln Continental

By 2017, advanced HUDs were common in many cars, but the Lincoln Continental stood out for our analysis.

Its HUD is notable for the sheer volume of information it can display — arguably, an abundance. Among others, it would show you:

  • Speed;
  • Fuel range;
  • Time;
  • Temperature;
  • Driver-assist info;
  • Navigation directions;
  • Incoming calls and much more.
Lincoln Continental heads-up display widgets.
Source: Lincoln Continental Brochure.
Beyond offering a wealth of information, the Lincoln Continental's HUD used a DLP technology, which was at the time new to the industry. It supported a broader field-of-view and produced bright, vivid images with up to 15,000 candela per square meter (cd/m²) of brightness at the same time boasting a dynamic dimming range of 5,000-to-1 and exceeding 125% NTSC color gamut performance, maintaining quality across temperatures.

Importantly, DLP technology doesn't rely on polarized light, allowing drivers to use polarized sunglasses without hindering visibility of HUD data.

The Texas Instruments website offers more tech details on that.
Advertisement of heads-up display in 2017 Lincoln Continental.
Source: Lincoln.

Combiner heads-up displays

From 2010 to 2018, combiner HUDs, which utilize a separate small lens with a special half-mirror coating (that is, a combiner) instead of projecting data directly onto the windshield, gained popularity among manufacturers like Peugeot, Mitsubishi, Mini, Mazda, and Ford.

These HUDs are notable for their fold-down feature, allowing users to stow away the display when not in use.

Check out the video below to see the Bosch-manufactured HUD in action in the Ford Focus 4.
Advertisement of the HUD in the Ford Focus 4 from Bosch.
Source: Bosch Mobility.
The primary advantage of combiner HUDs is their total independence from the windshield. This means their operation remains unaffected by any chips or cracks in the windshield, ensuring consistent image clarity.

Conversely, HUDs that project directly onto the windshield require a specially designed, more expensive windshield with an inner layer to prevent image doubling.

Replacing these windshields can be costly and must be done by professionals, adding to the maintenance considerations.

Below, we look at how different automakers have adopted combiner HUD technology.
Peugeot 3008 heads-up display.
Image source: TheProDrivers.
Mazda 3 Active Driving Display.
Image source: Dan Edmunds.
MINI Cooper Virtual Genius heads-up display.
Image source: MINI USA.
Segueing into our own contribution to this evolving landscape, with our HUDWAY Drive the aim was to maximize the benefits of this approach, providing drivers with a wealth of information displayed on a full-color screen.

This system is designed to be fully customizable, allowing drivers to select from a variety of widgets to tailor the display to their specific needs and preferences.

Back to windshield HUDs: Incorporating AR

The advent of augmented reality (AR) technologies promises to mark a significant milestone in the evolution of heads-up displays.

AR's requirement for a seamless blend of real-world and virtual elements necessitates a departure from combiner HUDs, which utilize separate lenses.

Hence, we anticipate that combiner models might find their niche in more budget-friendly offerings in the future.

On the forefront of innovation, advanced AR HUDs are integrating directly with windshields to accommodate the complex interaction of visuals.

To effectively merge the real with the digital, AR HUDs require significantly larger displays and housings.

According to Dr. Bjoern Pablo Richter, about 30 liters of space are needed to house the additional components that make AR elements visible. This expansion is essential for providing drivers with an immersive, informative experience that AR technology promises.
AR and status fields on Audi HUD.
Image source: Audi USA.

2020 Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W223): A Leap into AR

In a groundbreaking move, Mercedes, in partnership with Nippon Seiki, introduced pioneering AR features in car HUDs with the 2020 S-Class (W223).

This innovation was part of the second-generation MBUX infotainment system, ushering in a new era of driver assistance:

  • Dynamic navigation and destination points
  • Highlighting of vehicles ahead with proximity warnings
  • Lane illumination for enhanced guidance

To ensure these AR elements not only worked accurately but also looked impressive, Nippon Seiki extended the projection distance significantly, from 8 feet (2.5 meters) to an impressive 33 feet (10 meters) in front of the vehicle.

Explore the driver's view in the W223 through the photo and video below.
Second-generation MBUX HUD in Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W223).
Image source: Autoevolution.
Live footage of driving the Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W223) with AR HUD.
Source: crospotter13.
Nippon Seiki earned the Daimler Supplier Award in the "Innovation" category for its exceptional heads-up displays.

Gunnar Güthenke, Vice President of Procurement & Supplier Quality at Mercedes-Benz Cars, highlighted their achievement at the ceremony: "With your high quality product you showed how ambitioned you are to take technology and quality to the next level," he remarked.
Kobe Sato, President & Representative Director, Nippon Seiki Co. Ltd. and Gunnar Güthenke, Head of Purchasing, Mercedes-Benz Group AG.
Image source: Mercedes-Benz.
Inspired by Mercedes, automakers like the Volkswagen Group and Hyundai Motor Group have also started to embrace AR technology in their vehicles.

The functionality mirrors that of Mercedes' offerings, with the primary distinctions lying in the interface design.

2020 Volkswagen ID.3

Volkswagen ID.3 HUD interface. Watch video.
Image source: Volkswagen.

2022 Hyundai IONIQ 5

Hyundai IONIQ 5 HUD interface. Watch video.
Image source: crospotter13.

2022 BMW iX

In 2022, BMW integrated AR features similar to those found in Mercedes' models, albeit with a twist.

Instead of utilizing the HUD, BMW opted to display these features on the regular instrument cluster display, as observed in models like the i7 and iX.

This approach may have its advantages. According to feedback from some drivers, the dynamic AR animations on HUDs, while innovative, can occasionally distract and annoy, suggesting BMW's method might offer a safer and more user-friendly experience.
HUD in BMW iX. AR navigation instructions are displayed on the main display of the multimedia system. Watch video.
Image source: Johan De Haes.

What's next?

Currently, the automotive industry is witnessing the early stages of AR integration, with not every user fully satisfied with the current functionality of heads-up displays.

It partly stems from the driver's head movements, which can cause AR elements to misalign, and the potentially distracting nature of dynamic AR features like navigation prompts.

To mitigate these issues, manufacturers are exploring the integration of additional cameras and sensors to track head and eye movements, ensuring AR elements remain correctly positioned. Plus, refining the user interface could help the HUD remain a device that helps reduce distracted driving.

As AR technology becomes more seamlessly integrated and accepted by drivers and passengers alike, we may also see the advent of AR-enhanced tours, adding a new dimension to travel experiences. However, this development lies further down the road.

Parallel to AR advancements, the rise of autonomous driving technology suggests an alternative trajectory. As vehicles become increasingly self-reliant, the emphasis on heads-up displays may shift towards traditional infotainment systems, with AR losing its practical application in favor of entertainment and productivity features on standard screens.

The future holds many possibilities, and it will be fascinating to see the direction automakers take with AR technology. For now, various concepts from different brands offer a glimpse into potential roads ahead.

BMW Panoramic Vision concept.
Source: BMW Group.
Audi activesphere concept with AR glasses. Watch video.
Source: Audi USA.
WayRay AR interface concept.
Image source: WayRay.
HUDWAY AR interface concept.
Image source: HUDWAY.

We're glad you read it all the way here

Hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed digging the sources, images, and videos.

We do it on a regular basis, in search for inspiration and practices to apply to what we do about heads-up displays. We've been making them since 2013 — and among the HUD fans we're known for:

HUDWAY Drive — a portable, super-customizable heads-up display that will sit well on almost any dashboard.

HUDWAY Go — a navigation app making your phone work as a heads-up display at night mode when you simply place it under your windshield.

Both are neat alternatives to the factory built HUDs. Ask us anything about them at