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How Smart Rearview Mirrors Work

Nissan's Smart Rearview Mirror is the world's first LCD monitor that helps you see more clearly what's behind your vehicle when you're driving down the road.
Nissan's Smart Rearview Mirror is the world's first LCD monitor that helps you see more clearly what's behind your vehicle when you're driving down the road.
(Courtesy of Nissan)

Camera systems in cars are getting increasingly complicated, and new federal regulations are on the way so that every new car will eventually be equipped with a camera system for additional visibility and safety. In some cars, the complex camera and monitor systems that are supposed to increase the driver's visibility can be confusing and distracting ... and in some cars, the systems don't even improve visibility enough to actually be useful. Rear-view cameras and other peripheral camera systems for vehicles have generally been embraced as a useful tool for improving safety on the road, but it's safe to say that there's always room for improvement. Nissan is hoping to solve those problems with its new Smart Mirror technology. Nissan introduced its new mirror in 2014 at the Geneva Auto Show, and the company plans to start rolling out the system as a dealer option on Japanese models right away. The company expects that it'll be available in Nissans around the world by 2015.

So what makes the Nissan Smart Rearview Mirror different than other rearview cameras? It looks like a regular mirror, the traditional kind that works just fine when the weather is clear, and there are no obstructions in the car behind the driver; but when the rain clouds start rolling in, or the cargo area is stacked to the roof with camping gear, those aren't ideal conditions for rear visibility. So when a little extra assistance is needed, the driver can activate the Smart Mirror, and the mirror's regular view switches to an LCD screen that's inside the mirror housing. There's a high-resolution camera installed on the rear window of the car, which shows the driver an unobstructed view of what's behind and what's in the blind spots. This image is projected on the LCD screen, taking the place of the regular rearview mirror for as long as it's activated. The driver is able to switch back and forth with a simple control on the bottom of the mirror housing, which should help make the Nissan Smart Mirror system pretty easy to get accustomed to, especially for people who might have, until now, resisted buying a car with an optional mirror system. When new federal safety regulations are in place, which will force all new car buyers to get with the program, this Smart Mirror technology might be an advantage in the eyes of late adopters or technophobes, bringing more exposure to the Nissan brand.

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The Nissan Smart Mirror is unlikely to cause distraction to the driver, because it's displayed in an intuitive and familiar way.
The Nissan Smart Mirror is unlikely to cause distraction to the driver, because it's displayed in an intuitive and familiar way.
(Courtesy of Nissan)

The Nissan Smart Mirror is the first system of its kind, although, as we've mentioned, various vehicle periphery camera systems have been around for a while. Even though vehicle cameras are helpful in a variety of situations, the Nissan Smart Mirror system offers advantages over other camera systems. Its biggest advantage is its simplicity. The additional viewpoints are presented in a way that drivers are already familiar with -- the display looks just like a regular rearview mirror. Drivers don't need to shift their eyes to a screen in the center console, or to a projected image that hovers awkwardly in front of the windshield. The Nissan Smart Mirror is unlikely to cause distraction to the driver, because it's displayed in an intuitive and familiar way. And the switch is right on the mirror itself, within easy reach, so it can be activated quickly. Unlike other rear camera systems, there's no need to fumble through an infotainment system's nested menus or use voice commands just to change the viewpoint.

Nissan developed a new camera specifically for the Smart Mirror system because in early versions of the system, engineers discovered that existing components didn't match the system's unique needs. The LCD monitor had a constraint from the very beginning -- it had to fit inside a mirror housing, which is a different size and shape than a typical console-mounted screen. When images from a standard wide-angle camera were tested on this new LCD screen, they gave a low-resolution image that didn't achieve Nissan's objectives. So Nissan set to work on a narrow-angle camera that would provide the proper size, shape and resolution. Nissan also had to come up with a new LCD screen that had a suitable aspect ratio, so that the images from the camera were displayed in the correct height and width proportions. This enables the Smart system's camera to offer a wider view with no obstructions. Typical visual obstacles, like tall backseat passengers and the car's C-pillars, aren't a problem anymore, and the camera also provides more clarity in bad weather, without additional complications like foggy windows or the kind of slush the rear wiper just can't clear fast enough. Nissan says the camera is also useful in situations with awkward lighting, such as sunrise, sunset and even glare from other cars' headlights.

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The actual mirror meets federal regulations in its "normal" form. And when the camera's on, the display looks, for the most part, like the regular mirror. However, an indicator in the upper right corner of the display reminds the driver which view is activated, which helps reduce distractions and potential confusion.

The Nissan ZEOD RC
The Nissan ZEOD RC
(Courtesy of Nissan)

The United States debut of the Smart Mirror system was at the 2014 New York Auto Show in April, and around that time, the Nissan Smart Mirror won the 2014 Traffic Safety Achievement Award from the World Traffic Safety Symposium. This organization seeks to recognize interesting safety innovations in the automotive industry with the potential to save lives. So, the system's safety potential is already being rewarded -- and that's before it's even available.

But there are even more benefits that have yet to be fully recognized. Nissan says the Smart Mirror system solves other problems, too, by unlocking new possibilities. The Smart Rearview Mirror offers new opportunities in car design, in ways that aren't yet immediately apparent. When car designers don't have to worry so much about constraints like C-pillar width affecting drivers' blind spots, they have more freedom to come up with new and innovative designs. But they're not experimenting just for the sake of adventure. Car designs have to balance the priorities of driver visibility and aerodynamics, but when drivers have other means of visibility, the scales can be tipped a little. This gives Nissan the potential to come up with new and more aerodynamic cars, which will in turn improve fuel efficiency. To test that potential, the Smart Mirror system is going to run some real-world miles before it starts hitting production cars on the street -- although it'll be a high-pressure situation. Nissan's motorsports program, NISMO, plans to implement the Smart system into the ZEOD RC vehicle that will be competing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and other races this year. The race team gets to tinker with the car to try to improve its aerodynamics, and the team is also eager to see if the drivers think the experience is useful on the track.

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If Nissan succeeds with this new technology, it doesn't mean rearview cameras as we know them will go away. In fact, the United States will require rearview cameras on all new cars by 2018 [source: Davies]. Nissan hasn't yet announced if they'll be licensing this technology to other auto manufacturers, and so far, no competitors have revealed plans for a similar system. But if Nissan's Smart Mirror continues to impress, this simple and intuitive system might become a popular option to meet new federal regulations, especially if it works as intended -- simple and efficient, with as few distractions as possible.

Author's Note: How Smart Rear View Mirrors Work

I have to say, I like this idea. Nissan, so far, has explained better than anyone else why rearview cameras and smart mirrors are necessary, because I've always truly believed that they're just for people who are lazy. My last car had manual locks and windows, so I'm a bit behind, but whenever I've rented new cars or driven testers for reviews, I was a little overwhelmed by all the cameras. How is a driver supposed to focus on the road ahead with all those other views around, as well? It's too much. But Nissan's got the right idea here, from my admittedly biased viewpoint, by implementing the Smart Mirror in a way that'll be intuitive to drivers -- just put the new information where they're already used to looking.

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Sources

  • Davies, Alex. "Nissan Revolutionizes The Rearview Mirror." Business Insider. April 17, 2014. (April 27, 2014) http://www.businessinsider.com/nissan-smart-rearview-mirror-camera-2014-4
  • Fingas, Jon. "Nissan's camera-equipped rearview mirror provides a clear view in low light." Engadget. Feb. 28, 2014. (April 27, 2014) http://www.engadget.com/2014/02/28/nissan-smart-rear-view-mirror/
  • Iozzio, Corrine. "Smart Rear-View Mirror Sees Through the Stuff Piled in Your Back Seat." Popular Science. April 18, 2014. (April 27, 2014) http://www.popsci.com/article/gadgets/smart-rear-view-mirror-sees-through-stuff-piled-your-back-seat
  • Johnson, Lyndon. "Nissan Smart Rearview Mirror wins 2014 Traffic Safety Achievement Award." Technology Tell. April 27, 2014. (April 27, 2014) http://www.technologytell.com/in-car-tech/8573/nissan-smart-rearview-mirror-wins-2014-traffic-safety-achievement-award/
  • Nissan Motor Co. "Nissan Motor develops the Smart rearview mirror, which helps provide clear rearward visibility in various conditions." Feb. 28, 2014. (April 27, 2014) http://nissannews.com/en-US/nissan/usa/releases/nissan-motor-develops-the-smart-rearview-mirror-which-helps-provide-clear-rearward-visibility-in-various-conditions

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