How fighter jet technology makes its way into cars

No doubt the defense industry is one of the greatest technology incubators the world has ever seen. But does any of that trick fighter-jet stuff ever end up in the cars we drive? The answer is yes. Heads-up displays (HUDs), for one.

During World War I, aircraft engineers got the idea to combine electrical illumination with the then-rudimentary optical reflector sight to help pilots aim planes' machine guns. Pilots would no longer have to align their heads precisely with mechanical sights to make an accurate shot. By the 1950s, such displays had expanded to include complex, radar-guided lead-finding sights as well as basic flight information like altitude, air speed, compass and artificial horizon indicators.

In 1988, General Motors was the first company to install a monochrome HUD in a civilian motor vehicle, adding color in 1998, and then partnered with Raytheon to offer HUD-based infrared night vision in 2000 (it was discontinued in 2004). Other automakers followed. BMW was the first Europan manufacturer to offer an HUD, in 2003.

Both companies appear to be committed to the HUD. In 2010, GM announced it was working on a Tron-like system that gathered data from a bank of sensors and cameras, parsed the info, and projected laser-generated images — outlining a sharp curve on a foggy day, for example, or highlighting a faint obstacle in the dark — onto the surface of the windshield. That system hasn't yet been incorporated into a production car.

How fighter jet technology makes its way into cars

BMW's latest full-color HUD incorporates a wafer-thin foil into the windshield, onto which a high-resolution image is projected from a high-intensity light source inside the instrument panel. The light shines through a translucent thin film transistor (TFT) display, and transferred to the windscreen via mirrors. Usually, the convex glass would create a double image, but by adding the internal foil defeats the distortion. BMW says it's similar to the monochrome projection system used in the Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jet.

Both companies tout the safety of such systems, considering a driver doesn't have to look away from the road to get vehicle information, and the possibility of layering driver-aid functions over the field of view. Naturally, getting the right mix of layered information and physical optics correct is important. Overloading a driver with data would indeed have the opposite effect, making such systems less safe.

That means, while it's possible in theory, the 1981 Tony Danza movie Goin' Ape won't be coming soon to a windshield near you.