Cameras Instead of Mirrors? Not So Fast, Experts Say

Tesla, others petition for side-view cameras instead of traditional mirrors

3 min read

Front left side of a Tesla car without traditional side-view mirrors
Image: Tesla

When I was learning how to drive in the 1990s, my instructor taught me to check all the mirrors before backing up. If I get a new car in 2018, I’ll have to add "check all cameras" to the list.

In March, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandated that new vehicles under 4500 kg must be equipped with rearview cameras by 1 May 2018. The phasing in process will begin two years before. 

In response to NHTSA’s ruling, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and Tesla Motors took it up a notch. They petitioned the agency to let them replace clunky side-view mirrors with cameras as well. According to the Auto Alliance’s petition, traditional exterior side-view mirrors increase a vehicle’s total aerodynamic drag by 2-7 percent. The Alliance says that a 10 percent decrease in aerodynamic drag would help cut fuel consumption by 3.2 percent.

So, if we replace our old mirrors with shiny new side and rear visibility technology, this means we can say goodbye to all that pesky shoulder checking, right?  Wrong.

“The model of just backing up looking at a camera is not what we’re looking for,” says Bryan Reimer, a human factors expert at MIT’s AgeLab. His latest research focuses on how to teach drivers to trust and comprehend new automotive technology. Reimer cautions that drivers should not solely rely on cameras to view their blind spots. Instead, drivers should use cameras as assistive technology to help effectively monitor their surroundings.

Experts don't doubt that cameras can improve safety. By the time NHTSA's rule comes into effect, it expects rear-facing cameras will help save 58 to 69 lives per year that would otherwise be lost due to backover crashes. According to the NHTSA press release, each year typically there are 210 fatalities and 15 000 injuries due to backover crashes. Children under the age of 5 account for 31 percent of the accidents, and senior citizens 70 years and older account for 26 percent.

Researchers still have plenty of human factors they need to consider before they rush to replace any mirrors with cameras. For example, where’s the optimal location in the car to place the visual information? How bright should the display screen be so that drivers are not distracted when cruising along at night? How do you give drivers a better awareness of their surrounding with displays while representing the correct depth perception?

These are all questions that Gregory Fitch is trying to answer. As a senior research associate at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, he’s currently conducting research to determine the optimal location of side-view cameras in trucks, which are notorious for having huge blind spots.

“We know from our research that looking away from the road is dangerous,” Fitch says. He explains that truck drivers snap their heads 90 degrees to see the right side-view mirror. In this instance, installing displays would greatly enhance a truck driver’s ability to see what’s going on, without having to exert extraneous head movements. 

But, the real challenge according to Fitch is trying to determine where to place the display in the vehicle so that there’s a seamless transition from driving a vehicle with a display and then without it. He doesn’t want drivers to depend on displays and forget how to drive vehicles without cameras.

Reimer, too, is concerned about reeducating drivers who learned to drive with traditional mirrors. 

“Just sticking a camera in there and not educating people how the best effective way for them to use that information is an issue we still need to conquer,” he says. “We’re capable of changing the technology faster than we are capable of changing the driver today.”

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