Technology

A Dark Start for Night Vision in Autos


Back in 1999, when the General Motors' (GM) Cadillac division became the first to offer a night-vision system as an option on its 2000 Deville, a top exec declared it was "an important next step in the evolution of automotive safety." It hasn't exactly worked out that way.

If anything, the systems -- which use tiny infrared cameras to detect oncoming cars, pedestrians, animals, and debris in the roadway as much as 500 yards in front of the car, even in pitch dark -- offer a cautionary lesson in the financial and ergonomic constraints that can slow down auto-safety innovation. Most experts consider night-vision systems, primarily adapted from military technology, as a potentially significant life-saver. But high cost and consumer resistance have kept them from becoming anything more than a niche product, at least so far.

"It's a strong new technology that offers a whole new way of seeing things, but consumers just don't seem that interested in it," says Brett Smith, director of the Product & Technology Forecasting Group at the Center for Automotive Research, an independent research outfit in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Initially, GM saw a flurry of sales, as close to 20% of buyers of the 2000 Deville took the night-vision option, says Keith Spondike, the Deville's marketing manager -- despite its hefty $2,250 price tag. But once the first adopters made their purchases, interest quickly tailed off. These days, only about 2% of the 60,000 Devilles sold annually include night vision.

BAD TIMING? GM now may drop it from the redesigned 2006 Deville debuting in fall 2005. "It's a cool technology, but it hasn't achieved the kind of appeal [GM expected]," Spondike says. The story isn't much more encouraging at Toyota's (TM) Lexus unit, where the percentage of high-end 470 models shipped with a $1,750 night-vision option has dropped from a peak of 26% a few months ago to just 5% lately.

Consumer acceptance has been just as sluggish outside the luxury-car market, despite strenuous promotional efforts by Raytheon (RTN), which pioneered what it calls Nightdriver technology (and which makes Cadillac's system). The only other GM model that offers it is Hummer -- but as an aftermarket add-on installed by dealers. Chrysler (DCX) toyed with offering night vision on its Grand Cherokee SUV but decided not to for now. "The timing isn't right yet," says a Chrysler spokeswoman.

And California-based Fleetwood Enterprises (FLE), which offers a version of Raytheon's system as a $6,860 option on its top-of-the-line American Coach recreational vehicles, is dropping it as of the 2006 model year. The main reason: Fewer than 10% of buyers ante up for night vision.

"BRINK OF EXPLODING." Eventually, most experts expect it to catch on. It's probably the best hope for helping drivers see better at night and during heavy rain, and as the systems improve, in thick fog and snowstorms. Night vision could also help reduce auto-deer collisions, which account for more than $200 million annually in vehicle damage in five Midwestern states alone, according to the Dear-Vehicle Information Clearinghouse at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In densely populated -- and gadget-crazy -- Japan, night vision also is seen as a way of sharply reducing the number of accidents involving pedestrians.

Raytheon's Nightdriver technology can make a big difference

Sales will start to climb and prices come down as night vision "is packaged together with lane-departure alarms and other safety systems," predicts says Thilo Koslowski, lead automotive analyst with research outfit Gartner Inc.

Raytheon, for one, believes "the market is on the brink of exploding," says Stuart Klapper, director of the transportation market at its Commercial Infrared unit. He says a number of new offerings will hit the market over the next three years. As evidence, he points to a new night-vision system Honda (HMC) is introducing in Japan this fall on its Legend model. A spokesman says Honda is considering offering it in Europe and the U.S. if it does well in Japan.

MORE REALISTIC IMAGES. Although Honda's system is also based on Raytheon technology, the Japanese carmaker has tried to make it more consumer friendly than GM's. Some drivers find the GM system daunting and distracting because it displays an image of the road ahead on the base of the windshield, requiring drivers to pick out potential obstacles themselves. Honda uses sophisticated software to specifically identify pedestrians (or animals) on or near the road. It sounds an alarm if it appears that the car will hit the object ahead.

Other manufacturers, such as Lexus and Ford Motor (F), are opting to use "near-infrared" cameras that they contend can generate more realistic images than the thermal images Raytheon's infrared system creates. Ford has developed its own near-infrared night vision that it says can see up to 300 yards out (vs. 500 yards for GM's

system) but also sees farther off to the sides of the road and provides a driver-friendly display by showing road markers and reflective signs. Ford's system isn't scheduled for commercial production yet, but "everybody [within the company] who has seen it is very excited about it," says Jeffrey Remillard, a technology expert at Ford.

It'll probably take substantial improvements in the technology -- and lower prices -- to really grab consumers' attention. For one thing, none of the current systems can see clearly in heavy snow and fog. And everyone involved in developing night vision agrees that their so-called human interface must be substantially improved so it's less distracting to drivers.

KEY COMPONENT. Warns Bryan Reimer, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: "We have to weigh the potential benefits with the costs. The high level of distraction we're building into cars isn't necessarily a good thing."

Most experts see night vision as a key component in future automotive safety systems. But most also would agree with Raytheon's Klapper when he says the technology is still in its "early days." By Thane Peterson in Waymart, Pa.


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