Blind spots in cars could eventually be a thing of the past

January 12, 2016 6:30 pm

 

BMW
recently showed a concept vehicle in which the rear-view mirror is
replaced by a video screen that shows footage from three cameras that
look behind the vehicle. Photo / Handout from BMW

Blind spots could be a thing of the past, if only replacing car mirrors with the latest was legal.
Last
week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas BMW showed off a
prototype vehicle where the rear- and side-view mirrors were replaced by
cameras, which the automaker says give drivers a more complete picture
of what’s happening behind them.
Video footage from three cameras
one on the rear windshield and two replacing the traditional side
mirrors is pieced together onto a broad video screen that replaces the
traditional rear-view mirror.
It’s the latest example of
automakers’ interest in reinventing the mirrors in vehicles to provide
better visibility for drivers and a more aerodynamic, fuel-efficient
design.
Experiments with new formats of mirrors are nothing new.
In 1969 researchers working on behalf of the federal government
outfitted a Chevrolet Impala convertible with a six-foot wide mirror
that gave drivers an unobstructed rear view.

It worked on the convertible because there are no rear beams
to block the driver’s rear sight lines. But it was never taken seriously
by automakers because of huge styling and aerodynamic issues.
But things are a little different now.
“There’s
no longer a strong barrier of technology or price,” said Michael
Flannagan, a research associate professor at the University of
Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, of replacing mirrors with
cameras. “The fact that so many back-up cameras are in use has made the
technology for vehicles mature very rapidly. It has set the stage for an
even greater use.”
Flannagan said the most promising opportunity
to improve safety is similar to what BMW is doing, in which drivers are
given a unified field of view. They would no longer have to turn their
heads to the left or right to look at outside mirrors.
“The key
safety thing is eyes should be directly in front of you, straight ahead
almost all the time. The more you can do that the better,” Flannagan
said.
But no research has been conducted yet showing that camera systems are safer than traditional mirrors.
“There
is no research because it’s not been allowed up till now,” said David
Zuby, the chief research officer at the Insurance Institute for Highway
Safety. “Conceivably an array of cameras could give you a broader view
of what’s going on around the car than a side-view mirror.” He also
cautioned that the camera lenses for such a system would have to be kept
clean to be effective. And the electronics would need to be proven as
durable and long-lasting.
With a camera-based system some drivers
also would no longer have the potential problem of struggling to pivot
in their seat to check their blind spots.
BMW has not released a timeline for when it expects the mirrors could be included on its vehicles.
That
in part is because U.S. government guidelines still call for mirrors.
These rules were developed before cameras emerged as a viable
alternative.
Last spring the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers
and Tesla petitioned the federal government to update its standard for
rearview mirrors to allow camera-based systems. They’re still waiting.
The
earliest photos Tesla released last summer of its new Model X SUV
didn’t include side-view mirrors, but small cameras replacing them.
However when Tesla officially unveiled the actual vehicle, it still had
the traditional mirrors, in accordance with government rules.
While
acknowledging the safety and design benefits of switching to camera
situations, Luke Neurauter, who conducts advanced automotive research at
Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute , cautioned that research
needs to be done to make sure the implementation of camera systems
doesn’t confuse drivers who are used to traditional mirrors.
“Ideally
it’s something any driver can hop in and intuitively use and
understand,” Neurauter said. “Yes you’re seeing more with cameras but
are you accurately judging the distance of the car and the approaching
speed to make a safe lane-change judgment?”
But to offer such a
solution on a typical car or truck will rely on switching to cameras,
and government clearance. A Department of Transportation spokesman said
that the agency is looking for ways to accelerate innovations that can
improve safety, and is reviewing its standards to see if anything is
hindering such developments.

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