When Audi unveiled its electric e-tron SUV in San Francisco last year, much of the talk was about the car’s side-view cameras. The feature, which replaced the traditional passive side-view mirrors, is an option in Europe and elsewhere, but here in the US, such a system is banned. But now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is considering how to bring federal motor vehicle regulations into the 21st century to allow for side-view cameras, according to Reuters:
The planned test by the agency known as NHTSA would examine “driving behavior and lane change maneuver execution” in cars with traditional mirrors and camera-based visibility systems, the department said in a notice offering the public a chance to comment.
It’s not the first time that automotive innovation has run headlong into the brick wall we call the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Back in 2014, Audi was told it couldn’t import cars that used the company’s clever new laser headlight technology, and even today, US implementations of matrix LED headlights are significantly less effective than systems fitted to the same models of car in Europe, where the regulations are much less proscriptive.
Car designers have played with the idea of replacing side mirrors with a camera system for decades, but it’s taken until now for camera and display technology to catch up to the idea. The appeal for an electric vehicle is obvious—side-view mirrors add frontal area, drag, and contribute plenty to wind noise while driving, so an EV with no side mirrors will cover more miles per kWh and be even quieter to ride in. In addition to the Audi e-tron and its side cameras, Lexus offers a similar system on its ES sedan, although, again, not in the US. Honda is developing a camera side-view system for the Honda E, a production version of the Urban EV concept from 2017, and Lotus has done away with traditional reflecting glass mirrors for its Evija hypercar.
However, be careful what you wish for. When we tested Audi’s virtual side mirrors it was a very mixed bag. The system worked OK on the passenger side of the car, as the OLED screen is sited pretty much where you’d expect it to be. On the driver’s side, however, we found the positioning of the screen to be much further away from where years of driving have conditioned us to expect to see that information, requiring the driver to take their eyes off the road far longer than is ideal to check a blind spot.