They watch through the windshield, from the side mirrors, and off the trunk lid, reading the road, traffic, and our surroundings to establish a new kind of safety: calling out potential accidents before they happen. Cameras in cars aren't new, but with capabilities increasing and costs decreasing, they have suddenly become much more common and will be even more so in coming years. Their potential to reduce accidents and save lives is why we've named cameras our 2013 Technology of the Year.
What started with a simple rearview camera on the 1956 Buick Centurion Motorama car has evolved into a complex network of computers and cameras that juggles up to a dozen different tasks. Backed by sophisticated software, cameras can distinguish a lamppost from a pedestrian, read lane lines on the road, and sense how quickly you're approaching the car ahead of you. They facilitate adaptive cruise control, automatic headlights, intelligent high beams, forward-collision warning, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure alert, pedestrian detection, and a clear view of what's behind us.
Smarter, cheaper, and more versatile than radar-based alternatives, these talented multitaskers are quickly democratizing safety technologies that were once the exclusive domain of expensive luxury cars.
The new Nissan Altima's rearview camera becomes a blind-spot monitor when you shift into drive. Subaru's EyeSight system uses side-by-side cameras, rather than radar sensors, to handle adaptive-cruise-control duties. In the Chevrolet Equinox, a $590 package includes forward-collision warning and lane-departure alert. Further up the price scale, these systems are evolving from passive monitors that beep and flash when they detect a threat into active assistants that apply the brakes or put a slight torque into the steering wheel.
Even as they grow more advanced, cameras are significant for what they've done since the beginning: allow us to see what we otherwise couldn't. As an antidote to worsening outward visibility, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is finalizing rules that will make rearview cameras mandatory on all new cars, possibly as soon as the 2015 model year. Honda's LaneWatch, available on the new Accord, foreshadows the day when side mirrors are replaced by cameras with a wider view.
Accomplished as all that is, this technology is capable of things we haven't even thought of yet. As computing power and algorithms become more robust, as cameras encircle the car, these systems will observe, process, and react to an even greater number of objects and scenarios. "Is it a dog or a go-kart or a baby stroller? If we have the processing power, we can identify it and give that information to the driver," says John Henry, director of the technical department for camera-supplier Mobileye. "We've just touched the tip of the iceberg."
Seeing the world through the lens of a camera
In truth, cameras are merely a tool of the computers that make these safety technologies possible. Typically operating at fifteen frames per second and with a lower resolution than the front-facing camera on your iPhone 5, the in-car image sensor is rather rudimentary. It's the software that saves lives. Just as your digital camera can identify faces, the imaging chip that's packaged with the camera can identify lane lines, motorcycles, pedestrians, cyclists, cars, trucks, buses, and more. Each object is tracked by drawing a rectangle that grows or shrinks as the objects get closer or farther away from the camera. By constantly comparing the newest image to the previous frame, the computers monitor an object's trajectory and speed relative to the car to predict whether a collision is likely.