Who would have guessed that the consumer demand for bigger and safer vehicles would create an all-new safety issue: decreased visibility?
Enter the mirror industry to the rescue.
Mirror producers are now trying to resolve the problems faced by drivers of big sport-utilities. Because the vehicles have gotten so large, it is becoming harder to see behind them. And blind spots have gotten bigger.
At the same time, trends have given rise to more interior obstacles that foil mirror use, such as larger headrests and even rear-seat headrests.
Automakers' first response was to call for larger side- and rear-view mirrors with more surface area. That helped, but larger mirrors mean bigger mirror housings, and that creates a visibility problem all of its own.
Two key mirror suppliers - Donnelly Corp. of Holland, Mich., and Gentex Corp. of Zeeland, Mich. - are developing new technologies to get around the problem.
At this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, General Motors' futuristic Precept concept car contained a camera-based mirror system produced by Donnelly. The system used a small internal and two small externally mounted cameras to create a live shot of the Precept's surroundings. The three images were melded into a single image that was displayed on a visual screen in the car's console.
'The need is for 180-degree, eyeball-to-eyeball vision,' says Frank O'Brien, Donnelly vice president for corporate planning. 'The problem is that as vehicles get bigger, the outside mirrors have to get bigger in order to see around them. By replacing the mirrors with cameras, we can create a panoramic view on a TV screen, and use subtitles on the screen to convey messages.'
Cameras probably also will be used to aid larger vehicles in backing up. Some vehicles already have systems that warn when drivers get too close to a fireplug or a tricycle. O'Brien says future safety features will need to go further.
'The human instinct is to turn around and look to see what's causing the warning,' he explains. 'People respond to visual stimuli. We want to see what's out there, not just hear a warning.'
At Gentex, engineers are working on a mirror system that enhances the driver's view. Mirrors are receiving digital support - that is, they don't merely reflect a view; they gather it from sensors and redisplay it.
Ken La Grand, Gentex executive vice president, explains that the concept uses 'active pixel light sensors' that zero in on objects. The sensors can alter the light contrast between an object and its background, making hard-to-see things stand out in the darkness. Or in the opposite situation, the sensors can find the dangerous object in the midst of a blur of headlights or the glare of reflected sunlight.
Meanwhile, the industry is moving toward better-quality electrochromic mirrors. With electrochromics, 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.
Last year, automakers put some 7 million electrochromic mirrors into use worldwide. Next year, the number is expected to reach 10 million.