Feds Vs the Future: NHTSA Begins Tests on Mirror-replacing Cameras
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.
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