FRANKFURT -- Many of today's better-appointed vehicles have side mirrors that tuck away automatically. Major suppliers are working on making those mirrors disappear altogether.
At the auto show this week here, European auto suppliers Continental AG and Valeo SA were touting camera-based systems that they say can improve rear visibility and fuel efficiency, while opening up new design possibilities.
The camera-based option is more practical now because more cars include a screen in the dash to display the camera's view, and because the cost of tiny cameras is falling. It's also tempting for suppliers and automakers because it addresses two of their most pressing mandates: making driving safer and meeting more stringent fuel economy standards.
But to be able to replace side mirrors with cameras, automakers would have to win a change to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 111, which dictates the requirements and specifications for rear visibility, and overcome various state regulations that require side mirrors. (The federal standard was amended last year, in accordance with a 2007 safety law, to require rearview cameras on most vehicles.)
That suppliers are moving ahead on the cameras is a reflection of how the industry's view has shifted. A decade ago, German regulators pushed a concept for cutting fuel consumption by implementing modest changes to automobile design -- among them was the elimination of side mirrors, which add to aerodynamic drag. At the time, most automakers balked, asserting that cameras would be too expensive and would be rejected by consumers.
Last year, Tesla Motors and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, whose members include major U.S. and German automakers, petitioned U.S. regulators for permission to replace side mirrors with cameras, citing potential improvements in visibility and in fuel efficiency. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it's considering the move.
While they wait, automakers are working more cameras into their vehicles to widen the driver's field of vision and eliminate blind spots. Honda's newer vehicles, for example, include a passenger-side camera that displays a side view on the center screen whenever the right turn signal is on.
Last week here, Continental demonstrated a prototype vehicle with a trio of cameras and a cluster of displays that enable the driver to monitor the car's right, left and rear with a mere glance at the dashboard. Valeo said it is developing a similar system. Both companies are aiming their designs at more affordable and higher-volume cars, and both cite the potential fuel savings.
"At the same time, the innovative technology opens up new vehicle design opportunities," Valeo said in its press materials.
Indeed, automakers are experimenting with more mirrorless designs. Tesla's early Model X prototypes had no mirrors. And Bugatti's Vision GT concept, developed for the Gran Turismo videogame but displayed in real life in Frankfurt last week, dispenses with full side mirrors in favor of tiny cameras mounted to narrow stems on each door.