DETROIT – Nearly 20 years after they first appeared on production cars, heads-up display systems finally may be ready for the big time.

That is a prediction of automotive innovators attending the 2007 Ward’s Auto Interiors Show here.

“We’re going to see more and more of them on vehicles,” says T.C. Wingrove, senior manager-innovation for North America at Visteon Corp., an automotive electronics supplier.

Heads-up display systems, called HUD, transparently show certain driving data – such as speed – on a vehicle’s lower windshield directly in front of the driver.

It was first pioneered in fighter jets to minimize information overload by centralizing data and displaying it in the pilot’s field of vision.

In 1988, HUD first appeared on a car, the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. By the late 1990s, it was on more cars and being billed as a promising safety feature that keeps driver’s eyes on the road.

But despite the early promise, HUD never became as popular as some advocates had predicted. That could soon change, says Wingrove and others.

Why? Because “there is more of a compelling need,” he tells Ward’s following a panel discussion on telematics and multimedia electronics.

Modern cars are becoming loaded with various telematics equipment, including navigation systems, telephones and satellite radio with hundreds of stations, he notes.

Information from such varied sources can distract drivers – unless the data can be included in a heads-up display.

“There is a compelling need to try to manage all that information,” Wingrove says in explaining why HUD may soon find the automotive popularity that had eluded it before.

“And secondly, the display resolution on today’s systems is much better,” he says. “Before, it was primitive. Now, it is more visually appealing.”

Coming soon are heads-up displays that integrate vehicle-navigation systems, says Ryan Williams, Visteon’s project manager-North American innovation.

Although critics complain that overloading cars with telematic devices causes driver distraction, “telematics can be the solution to the problem, rather than the cause,” says Phil Magney, co-founder and principal analyst for Telematics Research Group.

He describes a “workload management” system that currently is offered on select vehicles, such as Saabs. Using sensors, the system detects emergency driving situations and consequently blocks out potential telematic distractions.

“For example, if a driver is braking heavily or making a fast turn and gets a phone call, the system automatically sends the call to voicemail,” Magney says.

Meanwhile, telematics are on more and more vehicles, he says.

Voice-recognition systems show surprising growth, Magney says, and go a long way towards providing a safer driving experience in which the driver’s hands are on the steering wheel, not on the communications and infotainment equipment in so many cars today.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com