Why Automakers Want to Get Rid of Side Mirrors

Source: Continental
Source: Continental

Let’s ask ourselves a simple but candid question: Do we really need mirrors on a car? Sure, they help us see mostly everything around us, but like much of the retired automotive components of yesteryear, mirrors may not be around much longer. And that’s both exciting and concerning.

Ever since sci-fi first took hold of engineers and their imaginations, humans have talked about making autopilot-equipped cars a reality. It’s kind of strange to admit it, but the concept of a self-driving car will likely emerge ahead of the elimination of mirrors; they’re inefficient, not 100% reliable, and create an immense amount of drag on what could otherwise be a very sleek vehicle. But all that is set to change as automakers continue to push for HD video systems in place of side and rearview mirrors.

According to a hands-on experience The New York Times had with Continental, there’s more to this plan than just eliminating some unsightly styling lines on a vehicle. Not having protruding mirrors significantly reduces road noise, and there’s the possibility that CO2 emissions can be reduced as well due to reduced drag and consequential improved fuel gains according to director of customer programs for advanced driver assistance systems at Continental, Dean McConnell.

Sitting in a customized Mercedes-Benz CLS, Continental demonstrated how its system works: A series of small video cameras had replaced the side-mounted mirrors, and in their place a pair of interior screens offered crystal-clear views of every angle of the car in places where a driver would normally look to check a mirror. These setups offer a much wider scope of view than anything a physical mirror can provide, and even eliminates blind spots entirely. Automatically adjusting for glare and bumping up the brightness at night, these clever self-adjusting cameras are a fantastic step forward for drivers, especially if one finds themselves in tight parking spots at night or in congested urban areas.

This is similar to what we experienced and raved about in the new Honda Accord which came standard with LaneWatch, a passenger side-mounted camera that bubbled out beneath the mirror. Offering the driver a detailed view via a top-mounted video screen on the upper part of the dash, this nifty feature can be activated via flipping a right turn signal or pressing a button on the end of the stalk. It wasn’t a perfect system; road grime and pixelation at night were factors, but it still is a great feature to have.

Source: Continental
Source: Continental

Back in Germany, BMW has big plans for its sharp-looking i8 sports car. Looking to streamline it even further, BMW hopes to use tiny cameras on stalks instead of side mirrors. Paired with a camera just above the rear window, these various angles are projected onto an HD screen in place of a rearview mirror. Seamlessly blending all three camera images into one large panoramic picture, BMW’s setup is an interesting take on blind-spot and aerodynamic drag elimination, the latter being a problem that automakers like Tesla have addressed in the past.

A couple years back, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers estimated that external mirrors can add anywhere from 2-7% additional drag, and by eliminating them, cars can be more efficient. Fortunately for them, eliminating blind spots via the use of camera technology has received a lot of governmental praise, and according to The New York Times’ report, it “will be mandatory in cars and light trucks in the United States by 2018.”

If mirrors do get eliminated one day, this would also mean no more worrying about shearing them off while driving or folding them in after parking on a busy street only to de-ice them the next morning. Still, despite all of these perks, there are some potentially dangerous factors involved with some mighty pricey downsides.

Much like your sideview mirrors, externally mounted cameras get dirty, ice-covered, and obstructed with heavy rain, so there would need to be some cleaning abilities in place  while a panoramic view may seem huge, those lenses are tiny and all it takes is one little splash of mud and you’ve got a huge blind spot. There’s also the issue with tech glitches: One of the great things about mirrors is that drivers are not tech dependent on them. Then there’s the whole hacker concern; if one day all cars rely on this sort of tech, eliminating its benefits in a single stroke would cause utter havoc on our nation’s highways. We assume that will be addressed upon implementation.