Return of See-in-the-Dark Cars

Return of See-in-the-Dark Cars

Bill Howard

BMW and Mercedes-Benz are rolling out night-vision cars this spring that use competing infrared technologies. They’ll let you see up to 500 to 1,000 feet down the road (5 to 10 seconds of driving time at 60 mph).

Night vision is a generic term and is also part of many products’ names (as in BMW Night Vision, shown at left, and Mercedes-Benz Night Vision Assist, right). It works via an infrared camera that sees in the dark and provides a black-and-white image on a dash-mounted display. Previous systems employed far infrared (FIR), also called passive IR, using the heat emitted by objects themselves — say, pedestrians out for a late night stroll on unlit highways, Bambi bounding across the roadway, Corvette twin exhausts, or parked cars still exuding engine heat an hour later.

That’s what BMW uses in the Night Vision, available in March in 5 Series sedans and wagons and in the 6 Series coupe and convertible. The image displays on BMW’s center-mounted LCD control panel, used also for navigation and entertainment controls; a split-screen mode lets you do two things at once. In Europe, pricing was set at 1,950 euros, equivalent to $2,400.

Mercedes’ new flagship S-Class employs a near infrared (or active) system with an IR illuminator (a light filtered to emit only the infrared spectrum) that bathes the roadway ahead. The image is displayed in a large LCD panel in the middle of the S-Class instrument cluster.

Both automakers could have used head-up display technology to create a virtual image that appear (to the eye) to float just about the front edge of the hood. But research indicated some drivers wanted to steer using the virtual image, to the exclusion of the real thing. (Perhaps having seen Star Wars, drivers wanted to try first-hand the-force-be-with-you driving.) Instead, the displays are placed so it’s easy to glance at them, but they’re not directly in the driver’s forward line of vision.

Whose is better? Passive has more range; BMW claims 300 meters, while Mercedes claims 150 meters for its active system. (Either is better than the range of low-beam headlights.) The active IR image is more detailed and lifelike. Passive IR is fuzzier, because heat forms an aura around the emitting body (and not just for Stevie Nicks).

BMW says a simpler image may be easier to understand at a glance, and the new system is better than earlier systems. The BMW display can zoom in on distant objects when you’re traveling faster. Also, passive IR isn’t “dazzled” by bright oncoming lights that emit some infrared. (Think what happens when two active IR cars bear down on each other.) Siemens VDO provided the technology for the BMW system and Automotive Lighting does this for Mercedes-Benz.

Others have tried night vision with mixed success. GM unveiled a Raytheon/Delphi-designed passive, head-up-display Night Vision system in Cadillacs in 2000 with modest success (and later offered it in Hummers). The initial Cadillac system was on the frumpy DTS, which perhaps positioned Night Vision as a visual prosthesis for aging drivers instead of a cool toy for Corvette-driving investment bankers. Lexus sells the Night View system ($2,200) on its high-end LX SUV. And in Japan, the Honda Legend has had night vision since 2004, but it’s not available here on the Acura RL (which is the same car).

Copyright © 2006 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in TechnoRide.