What a Drag: Time to Get Rid of Outside Mirrors

Staff Blog

Staff Blog | Jan 28, 2014

By Ray Magliozzi and Car Talk Blogger Jim Motavalli

We think it’s time to get rid of anachronistic, ugly, expensive and aerodynamically challenged outside rear-view mirrors. They need to die a quick, painless death.

Those mirrors are great for seeing right behind you, but not great for getting into the blind spots. In fact, the mirrors themselves create additional blindspots when you’re trying to see beyond them at crosswalks and other locations. Most people don’t know how to adjust their mirrors, anyway, and instead get a great view of the rear of the car and not enough else. Here’s how to do it the right way (well, our way) to minimize the blind spots as much as possible.

In this age of cheap rear-view cameras with widescreen vision, why do we need those stupid mirrors anyway? For one thing, remote-adjusting mirrors are incredibly expensive, costing as much as $500 to replace if you’re unlucky enough to knock one off on the neighbor’s mailbox. It may seem counter-intuitive, but these days cameras—coming standard on more and more new cars as backup aids—are much cheaper.

By sticking far out from the side of the car, mirrors also present a safety hazard to passing bicyclists (like those in our fair city of Cambridge) and pedestrians alike.

And because they stick out like a sore thumb from both sides of the car, by blocking the wind, side mirrors make cars much less streamlined. As a result, they can really do a number on your car’s fuel economy. They can account for as much as three to six percent of the total aerodynamic drag of a car. That may not sound like a lot, but it adds up. Over the course of 200,000 miles, that could cost you as much as $2,000.

A study of big trucks (with really humongous mirrors) found they can add a whopping 10 percent to drag. GM left outside mirrors off its experimental 80-mpg Precept in 2000 for a reason. “We knew we couldn’t afford the 30 counts of drag, so we went with camera mirrors,” a GM engineer said at the time.

Darin Cosgrove, a fuel economy obsessive from Canada with a ’98 Pontiac Firefly (yes, a few still exist), experimented with foldaway outside mirrors for highway driving and managed to see a 2.3 percent fuel economy improvement on some runs. “It’s a pleasant surprise,” he said. “I’ll be keeping my new mirror configuration.” He adds that he always folds out the mirrors for city runs.

VW's XL1 in Manhattan. Note what it's missing: outside mirrors. (Jim Motavalli)

The new and very slippery Volkswagen XL1, which gets an incredible 260 mpg, also does away with those pesky mirrors in favor of cameras with in-car LCD screens. But that car will be sold only in Europe. One big catch for VW is that U.S. federal law specifies a left outside mirror, and a right one, too, if engineers can’t rig up a mirror inside the car with the same field of view (impossible, we’d say).

Tesla Motors, which is readying its new Model X for market this year, really, really wants to do away with the outside mirrors. In some test versions of the new car, the mirrors are replaced with tiny outside cameras (see photo). Head designer Franz von Holzhausen talked to blogger Alison van Diggelen and she wrote:

Franz confirmed that they’re still in talks with authorities [presumably the federal safety agency, NHTSA] to get the necessary permissions for this innovative change which will make the car sleeker and more aerodynamic (not to mention, presumably free of blind spots). Tesla is at the front of the movement to release this feature, further increasing the range of their vehicles. 

Some photos of the Tesla Model X show mirrors, but others (like this one) have tiny cameras. (Tesla Motors)

It’s time for outside mirrors to go, in our humble opinions. We’re clinging to a technology that’s passé in 2014. Cars and trucks with two cameras per side would give drivers a much better view than antiquated mirrors. Tesla is in the vanguard here, but soon every carmaker (trying to reach a 54.5 mpg fleet average by 2025, remember) is going to be lobbying to consign the mirrors to the automotive scrap heap.

So what do you think? Is it finally time to end our long romance with outside mirrors?

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