About 210 people die each year in backing accidents vs. 33,561 traffic fatalities in 2012 (it doesn’t report 2013 fatalities until just before Thanksgiving this year). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has proposed requiring cars have a backup camera since 2008. The current backup camera mandate finally locks in 2018 as the date when all vehicles sold in the US have a backup camera system and Car Front View Cameras. When the widebody Hummer H2 became the first vehicle with a backup cameras in 2004, a camera cost an estimated $150, plus the cost of the display device. By 2018, they’ll be under $50 for the camera, and many cars will have LCD displays for infotainment, so that cost is already embedded in the car’s base price.
Especially at the high end, automakers compete to add features and safety, or at least convenience. Land Rover prototyped an X-ray vision system called Transparent Bonnet that “sees” through the hood of the car, which is already big and high, and obstructs vision further when you’re climbing a hill. Most off-road SUVs have downward facing front cameras. Land Rover goes one better with a downward facing camera that appears to show the road directly under a semi-transparent hood as wheel.
High-end SUVs could add a fifth camera at the top of the liftgate for a less distorted rear-facing view. You’d still need a low-mounted camera for close-in work because the slanted backs of most SUVs would be blind for 2 to 5 feet behind the car. The camera could also be an alternative rear view camera, for instance when the back deck is piled high with baggage. Tesla and other automakers are working on digital rear view systems; they could stitch side and rear cameras for a seamless wide view.
Simpler tweaks would make surround vision and rear vision cameras useful. They would benefit from lens cleaners, either a blast of air or a squirt of water. Too often lenses are foggy, dirty, or wet and don’t show a usable image. Backup lights need to distribute more light more evenly; the quality varies greatly.
NHTSA’s rulemaking will save just a handful of lives. NHTSA estimates the backup systems will reduce the 210 fatalities that by one-third – only – despite an automaker expenditure of $750 million or more each year (15 million vehicles produced times $50 per car). Many motorists won’t look at the displays and others who do won’t see a person because of water, dirt, or sunlight on the camera or the LCD display.
NHTSA’s mandate will allow small LCDs inset into rear view mirrors. My experience is those LCDs are too small to be useful but it may be how automakers meet the mandate on the cheapest trim lines of each model, the one with wind-up windows and no USB or Bluetooth. The PR image you see here is more legible than you may experience and the child filling that much of the screen is only a few feet away.
The surround view cameras do better than the rear-camera NHTSA mandate in in two ways. First, the side view may pick up children and others who approach the car from the side. Also, the cost of the surround view system — $250 to $1000 — probably pays for itself with fewer fender benders and scraped curbs. Who doesn’t over a decade have at least one low-speed incident? You may not report it because the majority comes out of your pocket via the deductible, but you pay in reduced value at trade-in time.