In a widely watched YouTube video, a man is driving around Los Angeles when his phone rings. On a small screen mounted on the dashboard, an image of the caller, the man’s mother, appears.
But there’s an optical twist: The image actually looks to the driver as if it’s floating just at the front edge of the car, right above the roadway. The man answers the call with a gesture of his hand.
“Hi,” his mother says over the car speakers. “I just wanted to say I love you.”
“I love you,” the man responds, and then, before signing off, “I’m making a video right now.”
That video — the one posted on YouTube — was a promotion commissioned by Navdy, one of a handful of startup companies bringing a futuristic spin to the debate on distracted driving and how to curb it.
The devices project driving information and data streamed from a smartphone into a driver’s field of view. There are several versions of this nascent technology, but they generally work by using a projection device that wirelessly picks up information from the phone and uses sophisticated optics to allow the information — maps, speed, incoming texts, caller identification, and even social media notifications — to hover above the dashboard. Hand gestures or voice commands allow drivers to answer a call or hang up.
Navdy’s device isn’t shipping until later this year, and it’s not clear whether it will work as seamlessly as presented in the video when used in real-life conditions. But, broadly speaking, the Navdy device falls into a booming category of in-car gadgetry that might be fairly categorized as “you can have your cake and eat it, too.”
Drive, get texts, talk on the phone, even interact on social media, and do it all without compromising safety, according to various makers of the so-called head-up displays, repeating a position taken by a growing number of automakers who sell monitors set into the dashboard or mounted on it. Some car makers also display basic driving information, like speed and turn-by-turn directions, within a specialized windshield so a driver can remain looking ahead and not down.
Google, with Android Auto, and Apple, with CarPlay, have also leapt into the evolving business. Each allows phones to be plugged into a car’s USB port so that information streams to a monitor set into the dashboard. IHS Automotive, a company that analyzes car industry trends, expects many automakers to integrate these systems. IHS consumer surveys indicate drivers want systems that provide maps, music, news and social connection.
These emerging display devices have become part of a debate over whether technology can provide safer ways for people to multitask while driving. Safety advocates argue that technologies that try to minimize the dangers are based on the false premise that drivers can safely attend to the road while juggling social communication — and are, in turn, encouraging a risky behavior.
The argument on the other side boils down to a simple notion: Drivers are going to do it anyway, so why not minimize the riskiest kinds of multitasking, like looking down at the phone or handling it?
The federal government has issued nonbinding guidelines that govern car “infotainment systems,” and one of its main messages is that performing certain nondriving tasks interferes inherently with a driver’s safety. Experts in the science of attention say that some of the new head-up displays may be raising risks that are so plain that you don’t need to be a driver’s mother to appreciate them.
“It’s a horrible idea,” said Paul Atchley, a psychologist at the University of Kansas who studies driver distraction.
“The technology is driven by a false assumption that seeing requires nothing more than having the eyes fixed on the right spot.”
Navdy, which is based in San Francisco, has raised $26.8 million, said Doug Simpson, the company’s founder and chief executive. Simpson is a computer scientist who spent 10 years at Hewlett-Packard. Even though the company’s $299 device isn’t shipping until later this year, it has already received $6 million in preorders, Simpson said.
Simpson said he got the idea during a trip to Bangkok. Like many visitors, he was trying to figure out a map on his phone while driving on unfamiliar streets. He narrowly escaped rear-ending another car.
It’s not surprising that Simpson’s “aha” moment started with navigation. Maps, driving directions and other driving-focused information are important features of many of these products, the idea being that any task that relates to driving should be done as safely as possible. Part of what has created an opening for products like Navdy is a sentiment among many consumers that the navigation and touch-screen systems built into many cars are wonky, and research shows that voice command systems can be so inaccurate that they create distraction.
At the same time, though, the developers of head-up displays also are making a major selling point of aiding motorists with tasks that have nothing to do with driving.
The Navdy device is roughly the shape and size of a hand-held CD player and mounts on the dashboard. From its top unfolds a small transparent screen through which information streamed from the phone is projected: speed, map information, and notifications of incoming calls and texts that include the identity of the sender but not the text itself. To answer a call, the driver swipes a hand in the air or slides it across the steering wheel, a gesture picked up by the dashboard device in somewhat the same way a Nintendo Wii console works.
The image will look to the driver a bit like a hologram floating about 5½ feet in front of the windshield, Simpson said, roughly where the front of the car meets the road.
“It’s safer than looking down at the dashboard or at an image on your phone,” he added.
In the YouTube video commissioned by Navdy, the driver (who owns the company that made the video), says the technology is “just like what commercial airline pilots use when they’re landing.” He adds: “You hear that? Pilots use it. It’s safe.”
“Not true,” countered Christopher Wickens, a professor at Colorado State University and one of the leading experts in the country in safe use of head-up displays for transportation.
Wickens said that the head-up displays used by airplanes show only information critical to flying, like an outline of the runway or the horizon, and, crucially, that information is often displayed as a visual overlay with the runway or horizon.
By contrast, a head-up display in the car that gives nondriving information that is out of alignment with the road “is the worst of two worlds,” Wickens said. “It is clutter contributing to potential failure and distraction contributing to potential failure.”
He said it appears from his research that when the information projected is related to driving and made simple — like speed or a navigation arrow — there is a modest safety advantage. But the social information “counteracts, takes away” any small benefit the driver might get from driving information that is properly aligned.
Another take on the fledgling technology comes from a Vancouver, British Columbia, startup called DD Technologies that was started by two entrepreneurs who said they were inspired to build a head-up display after watching an “Iron Man” movie. The company’s display, Iris, which should soon be available in limited quantities, allows drivers to read the contents of a text message.
“We’re not saying you should be texting and driving,” the company’s cofounder Dino Mariutti said. “We’re saying you should make it safer.”