Decades before becoming a reality, the creative minds at General Motors saw a potential for head-up display (HUD) technology in production automobiles.
Let’s take a look at GM’s legacy of HUD innovation, including bringing the first automotive application to market. (As an added bonus, we’ll touch on a years-old question about a never-produced “advanced front-wheel drive sports coupe” from the mid 1960s.)
In the broadest sense, HUDs are a means of placing information optimally within an observer’s field of vision. By 1942, the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force started projecting radar images onto their gyro sights so the gunner could keep his head up (hence the name). By the ’70s, HUDs were not uncommon in fighter planes and commercial aircraft had even started to make use of them.
Land vehicles, however, were going to have to wait. Here’s GM’s timeline of events.
Though it may be hard to believe, GM was conceptualizing the use of a HUD for automotive instrumentation as far back as 1965, in the Mako Shark II concept.
As the photos demonstrate, although it was a part of an early sketch, a HUD wasn’t built into the Mako Shark II concept. However, by 1965-66, a HUD unit was included in a proposal for a never-produced, advanced front-wheel drive sports coupe. Now, it is typical GM policy to not release pictures of vehicle models that didn’t see the light of day but every once in a while something slips by. While putting this article together, I found some dots and may have inadvertently connected them.
Let me explain the two pictures above. The blue car, oddly, popped up in an automotive calendar and was titled, “1969 Chevrolet Corvette XP-856 Aero Coupe;” it appears to be on the outdoor viewing patio at GM Design. The black and white photo, below it, shows a mechanical HUD on a vehicle dashboard. That photo is sourced from GM and titled, “XP-856,” with the caption, “HUD incorporated into a proposal for an advanced front-wheel drive sports coupe.”
So, those are the dots and the yellow lines, shown above, indicate why I’ve connected them. Interestingly, although the blue car includes Corvette cues, I actually see hints of first-generation Oldsmobile Toronado in it. (The 1966 Toronado was the first front-wheel drive domestic model produced in over three decades, following the 1937 Cord.)
Following the XP-856, Chevy apparently fitted a HUD to a 1968 Caprice prototype but I couldn’t find any information on it and the photo GM picked for the milestone is less than revealing. Nevertheless, history tells us the proposal didn’t make production.
Following that, GM appears to have moved the idea of using HUD technology in vehicle applications to a back burner, for almost two decades. Then, Pontiac resurrected it in their helicopter-canopied 1986 Trans Sport minivan concept (shown left).
Amazingly, however, it was the Rocket Division that brought HUDs to real-world applications for the consumer.
The 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Indianapolis 500 Pace Car (below) employed a vacuum fluorescent display tube and reflective optics to display speed and other useful data onto the standard production windshield (shown right).
Shortly after, others got on board, including Pontiac that made a HUD standard on their range-topping Bonneville SSEi. By the year 2000 Cadillac had incorporated full-blown thermal imaging into their HUD system and for 2005 Cadillac’s STS offered the world’s first four-color HUD.
Not shown on the timeline chart was a story released in early 2010 that GM had been working on a full-windshield, laser-based HUD for future applications. Here is that video to provide some additional details.
It was only a matter of time before other electronics were channeled through a HUD to further reduce time spent looking away from the road and by 2013 Cadillac had incorporated their infotainment system to the HUD.
Certainly, GM is not the only manufacturer to offer a HUD in their vehicles but they were one of the earliest to envision it and the first to bring it to market. GM currently offers HUD technology in roughly 30 percent of their new vehicles.