At this stage, most drivers are familiar with rearview cameras. These handy features can be a great way to improve rear visibility, since drivers don’t have to look through the cabin to see what’s behind the vehicle. The rear-facing camera is mounted outside of the car, so that heads, headrests and the size of the rear window don’t affect the view. That positioning also gives rearview cameras a wider field of vision than a typical rearview mirror.
The latest camera systems aren’t limited to the rear view, either. Many companies already offer so-called surround-view camera systems that can provide top-down, 360-degree video coverage of the area all around a vehicle. With these setups, it’s almost as if your own personal drone is flying directly above your vehicle, transmitting live footage straight to your infotainment screen.
Let’s see what’s really going on with these features.
Who Invented the Rearview Camera?
Everything starts with the rearview camera, and credit for that usually goes to Chuck Jordan, an influential automotive designer who became head of design for General Motors in 1977. In 1956, Jordan created the Buick Centurion XP-301 concept car, which was a Jet Age classic with a futuristic look both inside and out. The car showcased futuristic technologies as well, including an early take on the rearview camera system. Jordan’s version relied on early television hardware, with a camera mounted in the trunk and a screen built into the car’s dash.
It then took another 35 years until the technology was ready for production vehicles: the first mass-market retail car with a rearview camera was the 1991 Toyota Soarer. Even though the Soarer was imported into the U.S. as the Lexus SC sports coupe, the automaker’s visibility system didn’t come along for the ride. Another decade would pass before the 2002 Infiniti Q45 was launched as the first car in the United States to offer a rearview camera.
In most cases, today’s systems utilize the same basic principles as Jordan’s, using a rear-mounted camera and an in-dash screen. Generally speaking, they also still rely on a physical connection between the two, although wireless systems are available.
How Does a Surround-view Camera Work?
It was Nissan that also developed the first surround-view camera technology for production vehicles. Introduced at the end of 2007 in both the Japanese-market Nissan Elgrand and the U.S.-bound Infiniti EX35 SUV, the system adds three more cameras to the rear-facing unit. One is located in the front grille and the other two are integrated into the bottoms of the exterior mirrors. Since all of the cameras have very wide 180-degree views, their fields of vision can overlap, allowing the system to monitor the vehicle’s immediate surroundings without any gaps in coverage. As a result, many of these systems can show 360 degrees in the same general perspective as a traditional rearview camera, facing outward from the vehicle. Some also offer an ongoing scan function that shows the area around the vehicle in an ongoing loop.
Yet the bigger advantage of the surround-view technology is that it can shift the perspective and create a top-down look at the vehicle. The systems accomplish this by leveraging their onboard computers to digitally change the perspective of the video; as explained by Nissan, it’s the difference between trying to read a book on a sharp angle, which distorts the letters, and reading when you’re looking straight down. Computer-processing power fuses the different camera views into a single seamless image with a graphic representation of the vehicle in the center.
What’s Next For Automotive Visibility Systems?
It’s also worth pointing out that Cadillac is among the brands bringing new visibility technology to an older idea. Before automakers started using infotainment screens as rearview-camera displays, a number of them incorporated the video feed into their rearview mirrors. Well, in vehicles like the 2018 Cadillac CT6, engineers rely on computer-enabled perspective shifting to take that concept to the next level. Here, the rear-facing camera, which is still mounted on the car’s decklid, can provide live video for daily driving, not just for when the car is in reverse. According to Cadillac, the system increases rearward vision by approximately 300 percent, and since the camera is mounted outside of the vehicle, the display doesn’t show the rear seats, passengers’ heads or other obstructions.