• Cars are getting augmented reality upgrades that display virtual information and real-world scenes. 
  • BMW’s new concept car lets you choose various levels of augmented reality. 
  • But some experts say that augmented reality could pose a distraction for drivers.

A driver's view inside a card looking at a digital dashboard display on the windshield.

Heads-up car displays are going virtual to give you more information and entertainment while driving. 

BMW recently unveiled its new i Vision Dee concept car, which lets drivers choose how much augmented reality (AR) they want to see as they hit the roads. The person behind the wheel can select driving information, data from their communications systems, an augmented reality project, or a completely virtual experience with darkened windows while driving autonomously. The new system is just one of many augmented reality systems that may soon be in a car near you. 

“The advancements in the automotive industry have come a long way from just an infotainment system,” Gregory Thomas, the director of the Center for Design Research at the University of Kansas, who studies augmented reality in cars, told Lifewire in an email interview. “Using a lot of the same technology, they’ve adapted it to be more driver helpful.” 

Future Vision

The BMW i Vision Dee, which stands for "Digital Emotional Experience," uses the entire windshield as a display, mixing the functions of a dashboard with an infotainment system and tossing in augmented reality features.

The BMW model uses a slider switch intended to adjust the information the driver wants. The head-up display stays off until content is needed.

“With the BMW i Vision Dee, we are showcasing what is possible when hardware and software merge, Oliver Zipse, chairman of the board of management of BMW AG, said in the news release. “In this way, we are able to exploit the full potential of digitalization to transform the car into an intelligent companion. That is the future for automotive manufacturers—and, also, for BMW: the fusion of the virtual experience with genuine driving pleasure.”

BMW’s new car isn’t the first time automakers have toyed with augmented reality. Mercedes, Kia, Cadillac, VW, Honda, and others have all integrated AR into vehicles in some form, said Danny Parks, vice president of technology, of the mixed reality company Trigger X, in an email interview with Lifewire. He said the current systems are extensions of Heads Up Displays (HUDs) that have been available in cars for years. 

You won’t need to buy a new car soon to get the AR experience. Auto accessory maker Harman recently announced AR displays as an aftermarket gadget. The Ready Vision product is a set of augmented reality and HUD hardware and software products designed to enhance driver safety and awareness.

Thomas said the difference between the i Vision Dee's and other cars with augmented reality is the number of windows the BMW model can use to display information and make it opaque based on the driver's preference. 

The BMW i Vision Dee concept image.

"That is a little scary, depending on what it is they project. It may be more relevant for a racing application to have more significant info, but for everyday driving applications, the smaller, the better," he added. "It does help to be able to enlarge for people with poor vision."

Parks had a more optimistic take on augmented reality for cars, saying AR in automobiles "has the potential to reduce distractions and improve safety by putting information where drivers can use it without taking their attention away from the road."

AR Cars May be the Future

Parks predicted that augmented reality displays would become more interactive and entertainment-focused in the future.

"This could be possible in the near term with smart displays replacing windows, AR glasses, or VR headsets (and self-driving vehicles)," he added. "Once riders and drivers are able to see digital content without distraction, we'll be able to fully connect the physical world with the digital information space."

Despite the possibilities for fun and information, Thomas warned that augmented reality systems for cars bring risks. 

"Customization for the driver is an essential factor here," he added. "Warning messages are important, but I shy away from including telephone and call information which quickly segues into texting and others. That's distracted driving, and the second you look at that, you're not focused on the road."

Looking for more 2023 CES coverage? Check out all of Lifewire’s CES news right here.

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