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Car and Driver: BMW Gets Serious About Replacing Mirrors with Cameras

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BMW-i8-Mirrorless-cameras-PLACEMENT

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The dream of replacing car mirrors with cameras and displays continues, even though federal safety regulations prohibit the total transition from glass to, uh, backlit glass. BMW is the latest to jump onto the digitized-mirror bandwagon, albeit with a clever twist.

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Unlike digitized rearview-mirror concepts from Cadillac and Nissan, not to mention the dozens of concept cars over the years with separate displays depicting left, right, and central rear views, the BMW i8 Mirrorless concept being shown at CES has just one display. Fairly large at 11.8 inches by 3 inches, the screen is mounted where a traditional rearview mirror would be, but it stitches together the feeds from three cameras to offer a panoramic and blind-spot-free view of what’s behind and to the sides of the car.

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As BMW puts it, the “image of the traffic behind the car covers a greater viewing angle than could be observed using the interior and exterior mirrors. No adjustment of the camera is necessary.” Beyond a better view, the potential advantages of going digital run deeper. Exterior mirrors are bulky and unkind to a vehicle’s aerodynamic performance, while their internal workings—heaters, blind-spot warning lamps, turn indicators, and power-adjustment mechanicals—add weight. Erase those and replace them with tiny cameras, and the benefits start to roll in. BMW also set up the i8 Mirrorless concept to highlight warnings for potential trouble in its giant rearview screen; the automaker offers the example of a lane change in front of a faster-moving vehicle, during which the i8’s display will flash a warning to call out the potential risk.

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BMW i8 Mirrorless cameras

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Of course, there are some drawbacks to this technology that we can think of. First off, federal safety regulations continue to prohibit the use of cameras in place of mirrors. The 2016 Cadillac CT6’s digital rearview mirror passes muster only because it defaults to a normal mirror; the driver must manually switch the mirror over to its camera-fed mode. In the BMW’s case, such a work-around is impossible, since there is no traditional mirror. The side views come from tiny cameras mounted where the door mirrors used to be, while the central aft view is provided by a camera located above the rear window. Which brings us to our next potential issue: Keeping the cameras clean. If you drive at all on dirty, salted roads, you know that backup cameras easily become obscured in the muckiest of conditions. BMW claims this concept’s cameras feature Gorilla Glass lenses with a special dirt-repellent coating, and that the position of the side cameras is such that “spray water is conducted around the lens.” Let’s file the magically dirt-averse cameras under Stuff We Need to Try for Ourselves. (Nissan has dabbled in grime-resistant paint, but we haven’t tested that, either.)

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We appreciate the benefits that camera-based rearview systems provide, from lighter weight to improved aerodynamic efficiency, but sadly BMW’s i8 concept will remain just that until government rules are changed. Seemingly aware of this conundrum, BMW is also showing an “extended rearview mirror” in an i3 that’s more or less identical to the similarly enhanced (and production-ready) mirrors from Cadillac and Nissan. A camera above the rear window provides a feed to the switchable glass rearview mirror; the mirror can act as a normal mirror or superimpose rear-facing video over its surface to provide a wider aft view free from the car’s roof pillars or rear-seat headrests.

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BMW-i8-Mirrorless-cameras-REEL-2
-2016 Consumer Electronics Show

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