Tesla, Alliance seek U.S. regulators' OK to ditch side mirrors

The original concept version of the Tesla Model X crossover, shown in 2012, used cameras instead of side mirrors.
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WASHINGTON -- As long as there have been cars, there have been side mirrors.

But if Tesla Motors and the auto industry’s main lobbying group in Washington get their way, automakers could soon be allowed to ditch these old-school visibility aids in favor of a high-tech solution: cameras.

Tesla and the 12-member Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents such companies as General Motors, Toyota and Volkswagen, filed a petition today with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration seeking permission to take that leap.

Side mirrors are required by a U.S. regulation known as Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 111. Tesla and the Alliance argue that cameras could be just as safe while offering gains in aerodynamics. This is because side mirrors have to jut out farther from the car to be effective, and that creates drag.

“In light of future greenhouse gas and corporate average fuel economy requirements beginning in 2017,” their petition says, “camera-based systems represent an opportunity to increase vehicle fuel efficiency through improved aerodynamics by eliminating externally mounted mirrors.”

NHTSA did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

The proposal comes the same day that NHTSA finalized rules that will require rearview cameras in all light-duty vehicles produced after mid-2018.

Tesla sees eliminating side mirrors as a way to extend the driving range of its electric cars. The company’s CEO, Elon Musk, has personally spoken about this idea with regulators, according to news reports.

“You can argue with them, but not with much success,” Musk said in a February 2013 interview with Fresh Dialogues, a Silicon Valley Web program.

“You can actually get these things changed, but it takes ages. Like one of the things we’re trying to get is: Why should you have side mirrors if you could have, say, tiny video cameras and have them display the image inside the car?”

Musk said in the interview that Tesla had started asking to change the rules two years earlier.

The original concept version of the Tesla Model X crossover, shown in 2012, used cameras instead of side mirrors. When a subsequent concept appeared at the 2013 Detroit auto show, it did so with traditional side mirrors.

Other automakers are toying with the same idea. Volkswagen AG used cameras instead of mirrors on the XL1, an aerodynamic diesel-hybrid two-seater developed at the behest of Chairman Ferdinand Piech and touted as the world’s most efficient car.

Today’s petition reflects a broader shift toward using cameras to help with visibility. Because of regulations, however, these systems supplement mirrors, not replace them.

Nissan and Mercedes-Benz both equip cars with systems that offer a 360-degree birds-eye view of a car to help drivers avoid fender benders in parking lots.

Honda introduced another feature, called LaneWatch, on the 2013 Accord sedan. When the driver hits the right-turn signal, a camera on the right side of the car shows an image of that lane on the center-stack screen.

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

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