Crowds at the Detroit auto show may not have noticed, but a host of tiny video cameras were peeking out at them. The cameras were mounted on show cars, replacing traditional rear-view mirrors. Taken together, the cameras add up to an emerging trend.
In Detroit, the Volvo Safety Concept Car and the Volkswagen Microbus both sported cameras. Ford's technology display touted its CamCar, demonstrating the enhanced view offered by front- and rear-facing cameras. And supplier Johnson Controls Inc.'s technology display included its Hindsight unit, a rear-view camera.
Automakers have used video cameras before. Both Chrysler group and BMW, for example, have put them on experimental cars. It's no coincidence that they are appearing more frequently. 'The fact that you're seeing these same types of systems from a number of automakers means that we're very serious about this,' says Dave Wagner, a Ford Motor Co. er.
How serious? Wagner says automakers are working with the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set standards for production vehicles. 'It will take a couple of years,' he said. 'But all of the signs are that this is going to happen in the future.'
Industry executives are not sure when production vehicles will have cameras. Price and technical issues will affect the timetable. One supplier executive says he expects cameras on some vehicles by 2004 to 2005. Another predicts cameras may be a decade away.
In any event, the safety advantages are compelling. Cameras offer greatly enhanced visibility over three-mirror systems. Rear-view cameras eliminate traditional blind spots, while front-facing cameras can see around vehicles in front of the driver. Images would be displayed on flat-panel screens inside the vehicle.
Rear-view cameras could prevent accidents that occur when the vehicle is backing up. Pedestrians and children are especially vulnerable. With the growing popularity of sport-utilities, drivers are especially likely to have poor rear views.
The cameras are similar to those used in medical procedures in which doctors use tiny scopes to inspect a patient's organs. Computer buffs also attach these cameras to personal computers to permit video conferences. But cameras must be adapted for automotive use. Exterior-mounted cameras must withstand vibration, dust, rain, snow, extreme temperatures and insects - everything that assaults a moving vehicle.
'There are all kinds of great ideas that work when it's sunny and the roads are dry and you're going straight,' Wagner said. 'These have to work all the time.'
Placement of the display panels is difficult, too. Improperly placed displays could become a safety liability, says Erling Pedersen, Volvo's program director for the Safety Concept Car. One solution may be to consolidate the traditional three mirrors' view into a single, center-mounted display. 'It's very easy to just put technology into a vehicle,' Pedersen said. 'We need to package it so that you don't overload the driver with distraction.'
Initially, cameras are likely to be used as supplements - not replacements - for mirrors. Two large U.S. mirror suppliers, Donnelly Corp., in Holland, Michigan, and Gentex Corp., in Zeeland, Michigan, have partnerships with camera makers to develop systems.
Frank O'Brien, vice president for corporate marketing at Donnelly, says cameras are nearly ready for automotive use. He has driven a test vehicle with the cameras and rarely had a problem, he said. O'Brien adds that he knows of at least one production-vehicle program that calls for cameras.
'I'm convinced that in 2004 to 2005, it will start to happen,' he said. 'Personally, I believe that it's going to be in every vehicle. You're going to have a rear-view camera in every sport-utility vehicle.'
Donnelly's partner is STMicroelec-tronics Ltd. in Edinburgh, Scotland. O'Brien said traditional suppliers will integrate the displays into cockpits and the wiring into the car's electrical system. 'They would supply something off the shelf, and we would develop something for automotive use,' O'Brien said. 'They're not developing anything for automotive use.'
Connie Hamblin, Gentex corporate secretary and director, says camera makers must improve night performance, when the view is distorted by bloom, a haze of light around headlights. Some large vehicles such as buses and recreational vehicles use cameras now, but they are only effective in daylight, she said. Gentex's partner, Photobit Corp. in Pasadena, California, is working on the problem.
One major obstacle is the cost of display screens. An automaker might pay about $150 for a flat-panel display. Cameras and electronics add to the cost. By contrast, an auto-dimming three-mirror system costs about $100.
Moreover, cameras probably would require at least one traditional mirror as backup. 'If you think about it, what would happen if you lose power to one of these cameras?' Hamblin noted.
Cameras will debut on luxury vehicles until economies of scale push prices down. But Ford's Wagner said the goal is broader. 'The intent is that they'll be in all cars. We're very interested in supplying safety systems for high-volume production vehicles.'
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