GABE NELSON

Tesla still driving to ditch side mirrors

Gabe Nelson is a reporter for Automotive News and is based in Washington, D.C.Gabe Nelson is a reporter for Automotive News and is based in Washington, D.C.
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For Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Telsa Motors, no idea appears too small or too big.

A bit of telling news about Tesla's design and engineering mentality got lost in the blizzard of publicity Monday as Musk proposed to build a fanciful high-speed tube called the Hyperloop to carry people from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

The iconoclastic company continues to quietly push a smaller idea that could change the way people think about automotive transportation: doing away with side mirrors.

The original concept of the Model X, the crossover that Tesla plans to launch late next year, had cameras built into the doors and video displays inside the car.

It would work wonders to reduce wind resistance, Tesla said, but the automaker conceded that it didn't meet government standards. By the time the Model X appeared at the Detroit auto show in January, mirrors had replaced the cameras.

But that is not the end of the story. Tesla design head Franz von Holzhausen recently told Alison van Diggelen, a Silicon Valley journalist, that the company is "still in talks with authorities to get the necessary permissions," according to a report published Friday on van Diggelen's Web site. That would be the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees rearview mirrors under a regulation called Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 111.

Aha, the nerdiest Tesla fanatics among you might say, isn't the safety agency already updating that standard to make automakers outfit their cars with backup cameras for use in parking? Couldn't NHTSA slip in a few paragraphs about side mirrors?

Well, as it happens, the White House opted not to release that rule at the end of 2012, surprising pretty much every auto industry lobbyist in Washington. Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood then told Congress that the rule was being rewritten and wouldn't be ready until 2015 -- by which point, if all goes according to plan at Tesla, the Model X will be on sale.

So for now, Tesla's first mirrorless model might have to wait. But it is clear that the company wants to move in that direction.

Tesla is hardly the first car company to think of this change. It isn't even the first automaker to try it.

Volkswagen got rid of side mirrors on the XL1, the ultraefficient diesel-hybrid supercar unveiled in March at the Geneva auto show. VW even eliminated the rearview mirror, forcing drivers to rely entirely on the two door-mounted cameras.

A few months ago I drove an XL1 on the streets of VW's hometown of Wolfsburg, Germany. It was only possible because VW had succeeded in lobbying German regulators for changes to the country's standards.

Relying on cameras was unsettling at first, but it worked fine, and served as a reminder of what VW is doing with the XL1: making a car that is as efficient as it gets.

In that way, the switch from mirrors to cameras is just another sign of the electronics creeping into every corner of today's cars, usually for the better. Imagine, for instance, how useful night-vision side mirrors could be.

A change such as this can be a jolt at first, but it makes drivers rethink the entire experience of driving a car. And isn't that what Tesla is going for?

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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