By on August 28, 2019

With camera systems replacing mirrors on vehicles eligible for sale in other parts of the world, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has decided to test how drivers might make use of them in the United States. On Tuesday, the agency said it plans to test “driving behavior and lane change maneuver execution” in cars with traditional mirrors and camera-based visibility systems.

The NHTSA also said it’s soliciting public comments on the matter, signaling that the agency is at lease semi-serious about allowing digital screens to replace old-school mirrors on passenger cars. 

While there’s nothing illegal about adding a camera system to upgrade a vehicle’s fore and aft visibility, replacing mirrors with a live stream of the road isn’t allowed in the United States. Yet the odds of things staying that way seem slim. Both Japan and Europe now allow the systems to replace traditional mirrors and reverse cameras have been made mandatory on all new vehicles sold inside the U.S. The industry has also petitioned the NHTSA, via the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, to allow the use of digital rear or side-vision systems.

The initial petition arose in 2014, but individual manufacturers have also plead their case separately. In its report on the NHTSA release, Reuters noted that Daimler issued a plea for camera systems intended for use on commercial trucks. But similar requests exist. Over the last couple of years, automakers have asked for all manner of exemptions from the NHTSA for autonomous vehicles — some of which included replacing mirrors with cameras.

However, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has repeatedly said it’s considering the matter, there’s no formal decisions on the books. This new round of testing could change that.

Are camera-based systems better? Maybe. There are plenty of opportunities here that could trump traditional mirrors. Blind-spot monitoring can theoretically be made more robust (like on the Lexus ES), zoom functions can be incorporated, lanes can be highlighted, wider views can be offered, and your reward display could be situated inside the vehicle. Ditching side mirrors has the added benefit of reducing drag — something Audi noted when it made a camera-based mirror systems available (in Europe) on the new E-Tron crossover.

“[These systems are] an example of where automotive technology is ahead of the legislative curve,” Mark Dahncke, an Audi of America spokesman, posited.

Perhaps. But a lot of cutting-edge technologies being packed into new cars have drawbacks. The most obvious is cost. Mirrors are much cheaper to manufacturer and install. They’re also less complex, meaning there’s really nothing to go wrong outside of a good smashing — and you can still kind of use them when they’re broken. That’s not a luxury you’ll have when your side-mounted camera system goes on the fritz. Those babies will just go dark and cost you quite a bit more to repair or replace.

That doesn’t mean the U.S. should keep them off the table, however. Despite their drawbacks, camera systems could offer motorists more than they’re currently getting. We certainly don’t need them, but we’d like to see American drivers hungry for the technology satisfied, just not at the expense of those who prefer traditional mirrors and lower MSRPs.

Image: Toyota

[Images: Toyota]

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29 Comments on “Feds vs the Future: NHTSA Begins Tests on Mirror-replacing Cameras...”


  • avatar
    chuckrs

    And where will the displays go? Do we not already have enough difficulty seeing out of stylish gunslit windows and around massive A and C pillars?

    • 0 avatar
      whynot

      Well the whole point of them is that the camera system can be designed to make it easier to see what is beside/behind you despite the gunshot windows and massive C pillars (less so A pillars, as that is preventing you from seeing something slightly ahead of you).

  • avatar
    dal20402

    My Bolt has GM’s optional electronic mirror, where you can toggle the center mirror to act like a traditional mirror or a display screen with no headrests, children, etc. in the way.

    I find the display screen mode tremendously distracting, not like the mirror mode which fades into the background when I’m not looking at the mirror. I’m not sure if its distracting nature is because it doesn’t sync perfectly with what’s outside or because the brightness is brighter than what’s outside, but in any event I can’t use it.

    If screens are to replace the outside mirrors–which are far more critical to safety than the center mirror–then they are going to have to feel a lot more seamless, and stay in the background a lot more easily, than GM’s early attempt.

    • 0 avatar
      iNeon

      My Jeep’s center screen/camera display -does not- dim to a usable brightness at night. It stays in “two suns of Tatooine-mode” and washes everything but the display out.

      Like— phantom objects in all windows from the aggro-tumblehome— washes everything out.

      Its terrible, and basically I reverse with one hand covering the thing at night to save the corners of my car.

      Maybe that’ll be something they’ll be able to fix eventually. For right now, however— I can not see out of my car in reverse at night.

      Is that something that your mirror does, as well? I like dazzle, but don’t need to be stunned by it!

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        Thankfully, the backup camera image appears in the display screen on the dash, not in the mirror. Driving in the city, it’s not too bright, but I can imagine that if I lived in a place in the country without a lot of lights around it would feel nuclear.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    The backup camera in my truck still works fine after 9 years but what sort of lifespan are we looking at?
    The problem with a camera is that you have a tiny lens. It doesn’t take much to obstruct it. A small glob of mud, slush or snow and it is useless.

  • avatar
    Fred

    Race cars, GT and Prototypes use them almost exclusively, at least on the pro series.

  • avatar
    REAL_sluggo

    Nothing wrong with Silica and Quartz; subject to electrical gremlins

  • avatar
    retrocrank

    Today it’s mirrors
    Tomorrow it’s the windscreen.
    Next The Singularity and driving will be virtual.
    Finally, True Green cars.

  • avatar
    retrocrank

    Today it’s mirrors
    Tomorrow it’s the windscreen.
    Next The Singularity and driving will be virtual.
    Finally, True Green cars.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    This was an April Fools article on this very website a couple years ago.

    I’d be interested in a furtherance of the system Honda uses or used for a bit. An adjunct would be useful in certain conditions, but I wouldn’t want a wholesale removal of mirrors.

  • avatar
    d4rksabre

    Thanks, I hate it.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    “…agency is at lease semi-serious…”

    You might mean “least”.

  • avatar
    jmo2

    Every review I’ve seen raves about the system Hyundai-Kia use. With their system, if you use your left turn signal the left side view is displayed on the left side of instrument panel and when you use the right turn signal the right side of the instrument panel displays the right side view.

    https://thisisdrive.com/the-2019-kia-k900-has-so-many-cameras-it-could-be-the-nsa/

    Of course the B&B will abject to any system that requires turn signal use.

    • 0 avatar
      SirRaoulDuke

      This is the right answer. Fancy, but with the redundancy of actual mirrors for when fancy inevitably goes on the fritz.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      “Of course the B&B will abject to any system that requires turn signal use.”

      They all tattle on themselves pretty well by talking about how lane departure systems are a constant annoyance and need turning off.

      • 0 avatar
        iNeon

        I’m too OCD/enamored of courtesy blinkers to not use them.

        Within that count to 5, I have learned to check each of the three mirrors, and to check my blind spot— hit the blinker again— and then complete my turn/lane-change.

        I feel like that’s what they’re for?

  • avatar
    TS020

    Another one of those “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should” things.

    I’m sure the luxury German brands are salivating at the thought of charging $2000 for them when Kia has them as standard.

  • avatar
    slavuta

    I hate the future

  • avatar
    MKizzy

    four immediate problems come to mind.

    1. Side mirrors rarely get dirty enough to impede vision to the degree that a couple of drops of water on a camera lens would.

    2. How would automakers prevent the display screen from washing out in the kind of sunlight that floods car interiors?

    3. Hard to imagine internal display screens being smoothly integrated in automobile interiors.

    4. On a safety front, no side mirrors makes it easier for miscreants to sneak up on people sitting in cars since the displays will not work if the car is turned off or the battery is dead.

  • avatar
    TMA1

    Great idea for manufacturers. As long as there’s no traffic behind you, why not sell a little ad space on the screen while you’re at it? Ads can be deleted of course, for a monthly subscription fee of 11.99 (billed automatically each month, cancel any time).

  • avatar
    retrocrank

    Baby, you’re a rich man too…

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