Automotive heads-up displays: Experimental design practice

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Heads-up displays (HUD) have been common in airplanes for years. (See examples here, or do a Google image search for airplane HUD.) With a HUD, information of use to pilots is projected onto the window, so the pilot can see the information without having to glance down at dashboard gauges, taking their eyes off their view out the window.

Automobile manufacturers are now bringing this technology to cars. With a car HUD, the driver will be able to see projected on their windshield information such as speed, speed limit, distance to the car ahead, and highlighted pedestrians. As I read about this technology, I can’t help but wonder if the attentional demands outstrip the value making driving more dangerous with a HUD. After all, pilots are highly trained. In one article about automotive HUDS, I was horrified to read, “And, of course, you should be able to display information from your phone onto the windshield” (Wallaker, 2022). We know that talking on a phone (hands-free or not) takes attention away from driving. A driver who is reading text messages or making a different music selection on their windshield would be seconds away from a crash.

On the other hand, if the HUD marks the car in front as green, then we will know that we are following at a safe distance. If the car is red, we need to back off until it goes green. That’s real-time, useful information that is directly related to safe driving. We know from behavioral change research, immediate feedback is more useful than delayed feedback—or in the case of the lack of technology most of us currently drive with—no feedback at all.

After covering attention, this may be a good opportunity to give your students a little practice designing experiments. Describe automotive HUD technology, including some of the information that HUDs can display. Ask students to design an experiment that would test these hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: If drivers are given driving-relevant information, such as speed and distance to vehicle in front, via a heads-up display (HUD), then they will have better driving performance.

Hypothesis 2: If drivers are given driving-irrelevant information, such as the ability to read text messages or change music selections, via a heads-up display (HUD), then they will have impaired driving performance.

“In your design, identify each level of the independent variable, and identify the dependent variable. You may have more than one dependent variable. Include operational definitions of each.”

To help students get started, explain that researchers use driving simulators for research such as this as it would be (very!) unethical to put research volunteers behind the wheel of a real car on a real road where they could kill real people, including themselves. The additional advantage of driving simulators is that researchers have complete control over the simulated environment. They can decide what information to display, when a text message appears, and when a virtual child runs into the street.

After students have had a few minutes to consider their own experimental designs, invite students to work in groups of three or four to discuss their designs with the goal of creating one design for the group. After groups appear to have settled on a design, invite one group to share their independent variable and its levels. Ask if other groups have different independent variables or different levels. As groups share, identify pros and cons of each independent variable and level. Take the best options offered. Next, ask a group to share their dependent variable(s). Invite other groups to share their dependent variable(s). Again, identify pros and cons of each, then take the best options offered.

If you’d like to expand this into an assignment, ask students to dive into your library’s databases. Have any research teams done experiments like the one the class just created? If so, what did they find?



Wallaker, M. (2022, February 6). How does a car HUD work? MUO.


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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.