After two and a half years of technical improvement to onboard cameras, it looks like the regulators are finally getting around to legalizing cars that ditch the outside mirrors in favor of LCD screens and sophisticated multi-camera setups.
Of course, it’s happening first in Japan and not the U.S., but other countries and regions are falling into line. In June, Japanese regulators green-lighted deep-sixing outside mirrors, becoming the first country to do so. This is after the United Nations’ World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations said yes to cameras last year.
About time, too, since cars with purpose-built cameras should be not only more fuel efficient (mirrors are a big drag) but quieter (less wind noise) and safer, seeing around the accident-causing blind spots that are inherent to some of today’s car designs.
Research analyst Sam Abuelsamid of Navigant Research told me, “The mirrors should go--they should actually be gone already.” Why? With cameras, he said, the driver—short or tall, it doesn’t matter—is always going to be ideally positioned to get the best view to the rear. “Most people don’t have their mirrors set up properly,” Abuelsamid said. “They adjust them too far in, so they’re seeing too much of the side of their own car, and not enough of what’s in the other lane.”
Wow, I’ve heard that before—from Car Talk itself. (Click here and set your mirrors up properly while we’re waiting for cameras.) The bottom line is this, Abuelsamid said: “The fewer appendages you have hanging off the car, the easier it is to control the car’s aerodynamics.” Have you ever noticed that some Ford outside mirrors have ridges on the top? That’s in a futile bid to make them glide through the air better.
Japanese industry is gearing up for the big changeover. Ichikoh Industries has developed what it calls the Smart Rear View Monitor, which works as a standard mirror or, after flicking a switch, a digital screen showing a panoramic rear view. That technology is going to be on an unnamed Japanese-market car as early as next month. Ichikoh thinks that 29 percent of Japanese cars will be camera-based by 2023.
By 2018, the U.S. will probably also allow camera-only cars. The European Union and China are also on board.
This is how it’s going to go: The standard in-car rearview will become a LCD screen. Nissan showed its own version as early as 2014, called the Smart rearview. Like Ichikoh’s device, it’s a transitional design that will also function as a standard mirror. Nissan says, “The Smart Rearview Mirror can provide a clear image in a variety of environmental conditions including rain, snow, dawn and dusk. The high-quality camera and image-processing system implemented in the LCD monitor consistently results in a clear image with minimal glare, even during sunrise or sunset conditions or when the vehicle is being followed by a vehicle with strong headlights.”
A Nissan engineer explains that tall headrests are one factor in creating more blind spots, but the smart mirror overcomes this problem. Jalopnik, which drove an equipped car, says the technology is good, but not foolproof, yet:
BMW’s Phillip Hoffman showed me a version of this same idea on an i8 plug-in hybrid at the Consumer Electronics Show last year. Hoffman said the company’s mirror eliminates blind spots and reduces drag to near zero. I thought it was brilliant in a brief drive around the convention center.
Like a canoe with a built-in toaster oven, it's one of those concepts that lives up to its promise better in theory than in practice. On a sunny day or with bright headlights you still suffer from a similar problem you would with a regular mirror because the surface also reflects light, so the LCD mirror is just about as useless as a regular one. You can see this in the photo.
General Motors is also working on smart mirrors, and will introduce a good one on the snazzy 2017 Cadillac CT6. Again, it’s a dual-function mirror that can also operate as a conventional mirror, and that’s why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it meets federal law. “While the Full Display Mirror is an item of motor vehicle equipment that performs additional driver activated functions,” NHTSA said, “we do not believe that the fact that it performs such functions alters its basic identity as an item that includes an ‘inside rearview mirror of unit magnification.’”
So well-designed dual-function smart mirrors are basically legal now, but getting rid of those big boat-anchor outside rearview mirrors is the next hurdle. Here's some Nissan video about the Smart mirror; knowing Japanese helps, but there are subtitles: