The humble rear-view mirror has been transformed over the last decade into a high-tech electronic module. Compasses and temperature displays, remote keyless entry receivers, trip function displays, telematics capabilities, global positioning systems and microphones are all typical of the added-value functions found in today’s mirrors. Mirror makers are busy promoting them as the portal linking the vehicle to the digital world.
Tomorrow’s mirrors, they say, will feature rain sensors, tyre pressure information, carbon monoxide warning lights and collision avoidance indicators. Over 40% of the mirrors that Gentex sells come with some sort of advanced electronic feature, from compass and temperature displays to telematics controls.
Another popular item is the auto-dimming technology, reducing headlamp glare from following traffic. Donnelly and Gentex have introduced electrochromic (EC) mirrors. EC mirrors contain a gel that can darken when a small charge of electricity is applied. The electric charge is triggered when light sensors in the mirror detect too much light – typically from a glare – in the field of vision. Gentex introduced its first automatic-dimming mirrors in the early 1980s as options on high-end luxury vehicles. Today, these mirrors are either standard equipment or are available in option packages on vehicles in every market segment. As auto-dimming mirrors permeate the mid- and lower-range car segments, manufacturers believe that global sales of such mirrors could reach $2 billion by 2005, up from $500 million this year.
The Troxler Effect
Headlight glare from following vehicles can be blinding. Even once the source of the glare is removed, an after-image remains on the eye’s retina that creates a blind spot. Known as the Troxler Effect, this phenomenon increases driver reaction time by up to 1.4 seconds. At 60mph, a temporarily blinded driver would travel 123 feet before reacting to the danger ahead of him.
To reduce headlamp glare from following traffic, Donnelly and Gentex have introduced electrochromic (EC) mirrors. EC mirrors contain a gel that can darken when a small charge of electricity is applied. The electric charge is triggered when light sensors in the mirror detect too much light – typically from a glare – in the field of vision. In addition to developing EC technology, mirror makers have also worked on ways in which to pack increasing amounts of electronics into rear-view mirrors.
Loading the mirror
Today, some up-market models are equipped with interior mirrors featuring hands-free microphones, antennas, global positioning system receivers, wireless modems, microprocessors, user interfaces and various displays. For example, Gentex’s telematics rear-view mirror features buttons to summon emergency vehicles and roadside assistance, access to cell phone, request concierge services (reservations) and turn on the mirror’s various functions, such as outside temperature and compass.
Gentex recently commissioned JD Power and Associates to conduct research on consumer preferences for the location of displays in their vehicles. Not surprisingly, a high percentage of respondents believe that the interior mirror is the best location in which to display certain information. The results of this research bode well for mirror makers, since the instrument panel has become so crowded that vehicle makers are looking for other areas within the vehicle in which to display information.
Video cameras relaying images to screens, instead of traditional rear-view mirrors, could become a major trend in the next four or five years. Already VW‘s new Microbus and Volvo’s Safety Concept Car feature them at motor shows, and vehicle makers are already setting industry standards for production vehicles with America’s NHTSA. Some production vehicles will probably have them in 2004-5. The cameras and screens are expected to improve rear and even frontward visibility and eliminate traditional blind spots.
Technically, there will be challenges, particularly as cameras will have to operate in wet, dark and dirty weather conditions on the outside of a vehicle. Johnson Controls already has a rear-view camera on display at motor shows and both Donnelly and Gentex say that their versions are almost ready for use in cars. Screen costs will be a problem though – a flat panel display presently costs more than a complete conventional three-mirror auto-dimming system.
Opinions are divided in respect of when these cameras will replace mirrors, if at all. It is likely that screen projected images will operate in tandem with mirrors for some time, as an auto executive from a mirror maker said: “There are three issues. The first is that we have all been raised to look into three mirrors while driving. There is a human condition here that will take some time to overcome. The other issue is that, although there have been some great advances in camera technology, cameras are still blinded at night. Another issue is that the displays are still incredibly expensive. I think people focus on the camera but there really needs to be as much, if not more progress made on the display.”
Donnelly teamed up with Renault at the 2001 Frankfurt motor show to demonstrate new technology. Donnelly is supplying enhanced driver visibility and safety products on Renault’s vehicles. Donnelly’s next generation PanoramicVision system was demonstrated on the Renault Talisman concept car. There are no mirrors on the car. Instead, this system digitally merges the images from three cameras to relay a seamless panoramic view of the area behind and around the vehicle.
The view is displayed on a screen located on the upper part of the dashboard. This screen also provides information on navigation, the sound system, heating and cooling system as well as the vehicle’s warning and security system.
Eliminating blindspots by 2005?
The European Commission is proposing the compulsory introduction of rear-view mirrors that remove all blind spots for truck drivers after 2005. Full-vision mirrors are already compulsory for trucks in Denmark, and are widely used in Holland and Belgium. The mirrors are expected to cost around £60 each, and may be difficult to fix to older trucks, according to the International Road Transport Union, though these trucks could always fit the more expensive option of a rear-mounted video camera with in-cab display.