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History and Innovation of Cameras on Cars

by Frank
1956 buick centurion

Cameras on cars are a fairly new innovation on vehicles, but one that has taken the market by storm. Offering improved safety, vehicles today can have rear-facing, front-facing, and even 360-degree view car camera systems. This article explains the history and innovation surrounding this modern vehicular technology.

At one point, it would have been unfathomable to think that cameras and cars could ever go hand in hand. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a vehicle that doesn’t have a camera installed for safety. What started as one camera then grew to several, now giving drivers a bird’s eye view of their cars.

It isn’t just a gimmick. CBS reported in 2018 that combining automatic braking with sensors and backup cameras was found to cut reverse crashes by 78%. A US federal regulation that took effect in May 2018 then required all new cars sold in the US to have backup cameras. Considering that backup crashes kill around 200 people every year, the use of a camera in one of the most vulnerable parts of the car can not only prevent crashes but save lives.

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History of Cameras on Cars

Drivers found the first-ever backup camera on the 1956 Buick Centurion designed by Chuck Jordan. The four-passenger car looked like a vehicle of the future with a transparent bubble roof, fiberglass body, and a television camera mounted at the center of its jet-inspired trunk. The instrument panel featured a receiver that would display images transmitted to it from the camera, which meant it didn’t need a rearview mirror at all. As beautiful as the Centurion was, it was only a concept car.

After years of studying automotive safety, Volvo also unveiled its concept 1972 Volvo Experimental Safety Car (VESC). The Swedish company invented the modern three-point seatbelt in 1959 and allowed other automakers to use their patent, cementing Volvo’s name in the public consciousness as a safety powerhouse. The VESC had seatbelts that pulled tight, front and rear airbags, and rear- and front-bumpers that could absorb impact. It featured an automatic fuel shut-off mechanism and wipers for the rear window and headlights. Out of all the safety features included in the VESC, however, the backup camera was probably the one that stood out the most. The camera would transmit footage to a cathode-ray tube screen built into the car’s dashboard.

In 1991, the Toyota Soarer Limited saw production, but only in Japan, its home market, and not in other countries. The automobile incorporated a backup charge-coupled device (CCD) camera connected to a color electro multi-vision (EMV) screen. Unfortunately, Toyota eventually discontinued the Soarer.

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Modern-day Car Cameras

Backup cameras in cars finally gained popularity when Nissan debuted its 2002 Infiniti Q45 flagship sedan at the 2000 New York International Auto Show. The car had a camera mounted on its license plate in its trunk. The camera would then transmit a mirrored image of the footage it would capture to a 7-inch liquid crystal display (LCD) screen built into the car’s dashboard. The image on the screen would also show colored guidelines for drivers to use as reference points when parking. Nissan offered the rearview camera at its North American market launch in March 2001. Still, it wasn’t until they debuted their 2001 Nissan Primera that the rest of the world was allowed to get a hold of their RearView Monitor backup camera technology.

Years later, Cadillac introduced video in its vehicles’ rearview mirrors to reduce the number of blind spots for drivers maneuvering their cars in reverse. Their 2015 streaming video rearview mirrors had a high-resolution, 1280×240-pixel thin-film-transistor (TFT)-LCD display that would show drivers footage from the high-definition camera mounted at the back. Cadillac built this camera and display combination to provide drivers with a field of vision supposedly 300% greater than traditional rearview mirrors.

Several new models of cars have already seen success by combining rearview camera technology with rear automatic braking systems. While the combination is present in only around 5% of new vehicles, the combined technology has increased safety, adding to rumors that all new cars will be required to have automatic front braking systems in the coming years.

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Standard Rearview Camera Law

The US Department of Transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced on March 31, 2014, that all vehicles—including vans, trucks, and SUVs—would have to be equipped with rearview visibility systems by May 1, 2018. The government agencies decided after data showed that many children and seniors had died because of backup incidents, affecting thousands. The NHTSA estimated in 2010 that around 15,000 individuals are injured annually due to backup accidents, leading to 210 deaths each year. The new legislation is expected to save 58 to 69 lives a year and prevent countless injuries.

There was a time when only high-end models would have a backup camera and even multiple parallel parking cameras or a backup camera system that would offer parallel parking features. Nowadays, it’s common to get either feature as an add-on upon the customization of one’s car. It might seem like car camera technology has reached its peak, but it doesn’t stop there.

First 360-Degree Camera

2010 Infiniti EX35

2010 Infiniti EX35

In 2007, Nissan debuted its Around View Monitor on its Infiniti EX35. At the time, British automotive enthusiast magazine Car praised it as the world’s first 360-degree car camera. The Around View Monitor made use of four wide-angle cameras spread out on the front, sides, and rear of the vehicle, with each camera possessing a 180-degree field of vision. The car’s computer would then combine all the images to provide the driver with an all-around, bird’s eye view of the car. The system would even react to the driver’s movements, switching its focus to the front or the rear depending on the car’s gear.

Numerous automakers have since adopted Nissan’s 360-degree camera concept to suit their vehicles. Newer systems allow parking sensors to activate the feature once it senses an object nearby or when the car is driven at a certain speed. Having a bird’s eye view of one’s vehicle builds on the safety ensured by the first backup cameras, reducing the risk of damage and injury.

The Future of Car Camera Systems

The 2019 New York International Auto Show featured cars from BMW, Hyundai, and Tesla, to name a few, that had multiple cameras. These ranged from blind spot cameras to cameras installed with facial recognition software, made for either safety or as preparation for a future with autonomous vehicles.

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