Cars may be safer than ever before, but if there’s one place they’re still in the dark, it’s … well, the dark. Features like lane keep assist, collision avoidance, and adaptable cruise control do their best to mitigate dangerous situations, but when drivers don’t know what they’re up against, bad things can happen. The majority of bad things, actually. For instance, 69% of accidents involving pedestrians occur at night. So do the majority of the million-plus animal strikes that happen in the U.S. every year, resulting in an average $3.5 billion in property damage.
But that’s starting to change, because after decades of fits and starts, night vision is catching on with luxury cars, and within the next year or two, we could see it start to find its way into mid-market models. After that, the eventual goal is making it available across the spectrum, much like how the backup camera has gone from a luxury to a necessity with an increasing number of cars.
Night vision itself has seen a rapid ascent, and today’s units are a far cry from the murky Mercedes units of the ’90s, or the bulky Cadillac system of the early 2000s. And while the luxury market is red hot and as competitive as it’s ever been, the world’s biggest are coming to one place to get their night vision cameras: Swedish company Autoliv, an automotive powerhouse that has become one of the largest suppliers of safety and tech features in the industry. Autoliv may be based in Stockholm, but the cameras that go into the finest luxury cars in the world — whether they’re from Detroit, Stuttgart, or anywhere else — come from Santa Barbara, California, in a nondescript business park by the airport. We recently visited Autoliv’s night vision facility, and saw firsthand how these cameras are made.
The production facility at Autoliv is surgically clean. You need to wear eye protection, as well as a special coat and clips over your shoes to keep you grounded and prevent electrical charges — any surge could damage sensitive equipment. The small team works in the center of the room, assembling cameras at different specialized stations, each designed to make errors a virtual impossibility. The technicians are quick, incredibly focused, and most have nearly 10 years working on the line.
These cameras will be shipped off and fitted discreetly into the front grilles of Audis, BMWs, Cadillacs, Mercedes, and a number of other cars. While Autoliv works with individual automakers to develop software for the cameras, ensuring that each company’s system is unique, they all do the same things. The company isn’t the only game in town — both Mercedes and Volvo offer different systems — but Mercedes’ already pairs its proprietary near-infrared system with Autoliv’s, and despite Volvo’s radar-based technology, it’s recently signed on with the supplier to develop a next-generation system.
Autoliv’s system uses far-infrared technology to show drivers what they can’t see with the naked eye. Picture night vision in your mind: green, grainy, and washed out in black by things like headlights. This system is a very far cry from that. Far-infrared works regardless of visible light, allowing the driver to see through everything from a pitch black night to fog, windshield glare, or even the oncoming lights of a driver who forgot to turn off their hi-beams.
But drivers don’t just get a live feed of what’s happening outside. The camera is routed into an ECU, where the computer enhances and classifies any objects picked up in the car’s way. These objects are sorted out (whether they’re pedestrians, cyclists, or animals) and their trajectories are mapped. If there’s a possibility that they could cross the car’s path, they’re highlighted with a box or by a specific color (this varies depending on automaker), and show up on the night vision screen in real time. This process happens as quickly as the image hits the lens, goes through the ECU, and shows up in front of the driver in real time. Paired with features like “spotlight technology” (sadly, not available in the U.S. for now), drivers now have more visual information in the dark than ever before.
Thanks to the rapid evolution of safety features, drivers involved in an accident are more likely than ever to walk away from a serious accident. While that’s great, technology like Autoliv’s night vision goes a long way in making sure those accidents never happen in the first place. As automakers start to focus on eliminating fatalities within a matter of years, systems like this will begin to play an ever-larger role in how our cars drive and what they offer us as drivers. There’s a terrible element of uncertainty driving through the darkness, especially in a wooded area or someplace with few, if any, streetlights. Thanks to Autoliv’s night vision cameras, the dark looks a whole lot brighter.
Unless you’re planning on spending at least $50K (give or take) on your next car, your next ride probably won’t have night vision. But that’s set to change very soon. And once it does, we’re convinced that most people will wonder how they ever lived without it.