The view ahead – a review.

The history of the windscreen.

The view ahead – a review.

The history of the windscreen.

The view ahead – a review.The history of the windscreen.

At the beginning of the 20th century, when the horseless carriages were trundling over the streets at increasingly high speeds, drivers were facing an entirely new problem: the airstream. It not only blew unpleasantly around their noses, but also had an adverse effect on driving itself, for example due to dirt particles it stirred up, not to mention the precipitation or small stones and insects. The solution: a transparent pane of glass, the “windscreen”.

What luxury!

The windscreen was initially only available as special equipment and was regarded as a genuine “luxury”. And indeed it was – compared with the goggles normally worn at that time, the front windscreen literally did deliver a noticeable improvement. Its triumphant progress began. In the year 1919, nine out of ten cars still only had rain protection for the driver. In contrast, just ten years later, in 1929, 90% of all new cars had windscreens.

Nevertheless, the first versions were only made of fire-polished window glass and quickly broke due to small stones or cracks forming as a result of shocks. Large shards of glass posed a dangerous threat of injury to driver and passengers.

Safety first.

Therefore efforts were first directed to make windscreens safer. As long ago as 1909, the first laminated safety glass was patented by the French chemist Edouard Bénédictus. It still took a number of years, however, before safety glass had fitted into motor vehicles. The year 1929 saw the arrival of single-pane safety glass on the market under the name of “Securit”. This type of glass does not shatter into hazardous shards but actually crumbles into small, relatively harmless glass cubes. Single-pane laminated safety glass had still being fitted into nearly all cars until the end of the 1970s.

In the years that followed, the pace of innovations in glass production also aroused increasing interest amongst designers and was a source of inspiration for car makers around the world.

Aerodynamic curves.

Back in 1921, the Rumpler Tropfenwagen (Rumpler drop car) was unveiled at the German car show in Berlin. It was a real eye-catcher. Mainly developed on the basis of aerodynamic aspects, the bodywork is modelled on the shape of a falling drop of a liquid. The curved panes of glass used here proved to be an important design feature.

Curved windscreens are not only aerodynamically advantageous; they also give the driver a better all-round view. However, their influence on automobile design was particularly evident. Convex windscreens, curved to the sides as well as to the top and bottom, are now standard in car production. Glass is in fact playing an increasingly large role. Overall, the area of glass used in comparable models has increased by approx. 50 per cent over the last 35 years. On average, the windscreen has even increased in size by 60 per cent.

A supporting pillar.

The once so fragile, simple pane of glass has blossomed into a supporting part of the body. Current windscreens are usually cemented to fit flush with the body and thus not only make an essential contribution to the torsional stiffness of the vehicle but also to the safety of its occupants.

In modern convertibles, for example, such as the current BMW 2 Series Convertible, an additionally reinforced windscreen frame takes on the function of the A pillar and protects passengers in case the vehicle rolls over. And that’s not all. In the event of a collision, support for the expanding front passenger airbag on the inside is provided by the windscreen, which bears the resulting load effortlessly.

It’s not just glass. It’s a feature.

However, the windscreen has not only become larger and more stable. In terms of function, too, it is now extremely important. Fitted with infrared or rain sensors, tinted in various shades or coated to provide sound or heat insulation, the windscreen has in the meantime become a high-tech product with a multitude of useful features.

Development of the Head-Up Display was equivalent to a quantum leap. This is a technology on which several car makers are working in parallel and one which BMW introduced as a standard feature in the BMW 5 Series in 2003, becoming the first European car manufacturer to do so. The Head-Up Display projects important information that is relevant to the driver onto the windscreen and thus directly into the driver’s field of vision – in colour and, depending on the incident light, in varying degrees of brightness. It is an optical system that had hitherto been reserved for jet pilots.

A revolution.

Introduction of the Head-Up Display marked the lifting of the separation between the “visual area” (windscreen) and the “control area” (instrument panel) for the first time in the history of the automobile. It was a groundbreaking decision for the future of the cockpit. In addition to the considerable gain in comfort, this “merger” also brings a great bonus in safety. This is because the Head-Up Display halves the time taken for drivers to absorb information as there is no need for their eyes to adjust from far to near vision.

In technical terms, the information is projected onto the windscreen via several mirrors. For the driver, however, the display appears to be hovering freely above the bonnet at a distance of about two metres. The extent of the data displayed has increased steadily over the course of the years. Today, the information displayed not only includes current speed or navigation directions, but also driver assistance information such as the Lane Departure Warning or gear shift indicator. A sportier M-specific display including rpm range is also available.

Contact analogue 3D optics.

At present, the display is still static, which means the information appears in the driver’s field of vision independently of the surroundings or of the road.


A contact analogue version of the Head-Up Display is set to change this in the near future. Today, the BMW VISION NEXT 100 already permits a peek into the future: navigation directions, acceleration advice and warnings will blend dynamically into the perception of the real world, guiding drivers’ concentration onto the road, protecting them and increasing their attentiveness. The intelligence of the vehicle and its sensor systems connected with the surroundings use the Head-Up Display to generate a digital image of the environment, thus visualising objects beyond the range of human sight as well.

The view ahead turns to the future.

The merging of windscreen and instrument panel that began with the first Head-Up Display will continue to advance. In future, both areas will function as one unit, as the interplay in the BMW VISION NEXT 100 already shows impressively.

The possibilities of communicating or retrieving information that is relevant to the driver via the windscreen will be almost unlimited in the future. And particularly by considering location-based services, data from social networks or even entertainment offers.


To summarize, we can probably expect the windscreen to remain with us for the next 100 years. As a basic splashguard but also as an interactive multimedia touchscreen control element.

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