It’s a Slow Road to Rear-view Video, but Magna Says It’s Ready
Even though automakers routinely preview concept and prototype vehicles with camera mounts replacing traditional side and rear-view mirrors, you’ll have to wait a while before the technology makes its way to production vehicles. While Japan thinks ditching mirrors for a digital display is sugoi (Japanese for hunky-dory), other nations have maintained some amount of trepidation in embracing the technology.
For our purposes, both Canada and the United States have examined the matter, yet neither feels ready to make any industry-altering decisions. Supplier Magna International says that’s okay — it’ll be ready to hook up North America with the applicable hardware when the time comes. Plenty of downsides can be found in swapping out traditional mirrors, offsetting some of the benefits, and lawmakers need to figure out how to manage that when it comes time to redefine automotive regulations.
Most states require vehicles have at least one mirror to be deemed eligible for driving on American roads; however, the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards stipulate they be manufactured with both side and rearview mirrors. What you do after that is up to you and the state you’re driving in. Canada is a little less breezy, requiring at least one mirror in all provinces. Still, both have considered what it might take to swap to camera-based systems over the last decade.
In the United States, the initial push into autonomy made the issue difficult to ignore. AVs are highly reliant on sensor equipment, including cameras, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been trying to embrace new technologies to give the industry some leeway to blast off into A Safer Future™. As you undoubtedly know from reading this site, self-driving cars have seemingly gotten themselves trapped in a development vortex. But the accompanying hardware has not.
Back in August, the NHTSA announced it would begin testing the viability of cameras against traditional mirrors. However, while the U.S. is focusing primarily on safety, Canucks have taken a slightly different approach. In 2013, Transport Canada surmised that lower-profile cameras offered a “significant reduction in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions from the heavy-duty-vehicle sector.” The nation moved to amend Motor Vehicle Safety Regulations Schedule 111 in an attempt to legalize camera-based systems a few years later, but nothing ever came of it.
Ontario-based Magna seems hip to the situation and already has products is believes offer the best of both worlds. “We’re well-suited for the future when that trend comes, but we see it as a slow, slow adoption at the moment,” Keith Foote, vice-president of engineering with Magna Mirrors of America, told Automotive News this week.
In the fall, the supplier showed off its newest “mirror.” Developed with help from Gentex Corp, Magna’s latest ClearView system allows drivers to swap between traditional reflection and panoramic live feed. While it offers mirror-free hardware in other parts of the world (e.g. Japan and Europe), providing a traditional reflective surface that can double as a camera feed should allow it to be sold in the U.S. and Canada.
It also helps circumvent some of the less pleasant aspects of having no mirrors. Despite offering a wider view of the world and the ability to network with advanced driving aids, camera systems have their drawbacks. One of the largest is a camera’s inability to show you more than a single perspective. With mirrors, you can reposition your head to give you a slightly better view of what’s behind you. This encourages you to look around more, covering your blind spots and providing better situational awareness.
Camera displays lose their edge at night, as well. A crisp screen image can turn into a low-resolution mess after the sun goes down. Your eyes also have to adjust as they travel between illuminated displays and the road ahead, creating totally unique issues whenever the settings are too bright. However, the biggest problem for consumers is probably complexity and cost. Whereas a mirror can be installed or repaired rather cheaply, camera systems cannot. They can also be more easily obscured by roadway grime and precipitation, as anybody who has ever used a reverse camera in the middle of a snowy winter already knows.
Magna believes its dual setup avoid mosts of these headaches and should satisfy laws that require the use of traditional mirrors. ClearView offers a regular interior mirror, with the ability to swap to camera monitoring on the fly, and a side view mirror with a camera that permits a second video feed to be sent to a small screen mounted on the front pillar. While not yet in series production, Magna expects 0.5 percent of global vehicles to use its camera technology by 2025. The company said that low figure is largely down to some of its biggest markets being regulatory holdouts.
While we’re not certain if the advantages of camera monitoring actually trump old-school mirrors, they’re likely to become normalized within the industry as the technology improves. Right now, they’re just medium-quality displays with advanced blind-spot monitoring capabilities and night vision (sometimes). But automakers continue playing with them, with a few (Lexus and Audi) attaching them to production vehicles in select markets. They may prove invaluable a decade from now, but we’re not prepared to make that guarantee here in 2020.
[Images: Magna International, Lexus]