MELISSA BLOCK, host:
OK, enough forward-looking tech talk, how about a high-tech device for looking backward? I'm talking about a rearview mirror. In many cars there's now an in-mirror video display.
Michigan radio's Lindsey Smith reports now on that device and a company that's banking on it.
LINDSEY SMITH: Located in the small town of Zeeland, in western Michigan, Gentex designs and builds rearview mirrors with embedded video displays. Sort of like a TV with picture in picture. That built-in screen displays the picture from a tiny camera mounted on the back of the vehicle.
Craig Piersma directs product marketing at Gentex. He's pointing out one of the new mirrors with a full-color display.
Mr. CRAIG PIERSMA (Product Marketing Director, Gentex): What you're looking at there is a 3.3-inch-diagonal display. It's a backlit LED display. So it's very high resolution and it's very high brightness. Behind those displays are 80 individual white LEDs that provide the backlighting illumination.
SMITH: Gentex has years of experience putting high-tech features into low-tech mirrors. It's been making rearview mirrors that automatically dim for nighttime driving for more than 20 years.
Mr. PIERSMA: The science of electrochromics is what's behind our technology. And electrochromics is darkening a material using electricity. And what's unique about it is there's electronics in there. So you've got a circuit board, you got a microprocessor, you have sensors.
SMITH: All of those electronics have made rearview mirrors more costly. A high-tech mirror can cost carmakers eight times the standard mirror. I put Gentex's new display mirrors to the test in a charcoal grey Acura sedan. First, we used the standard rearview mirror.
(Soundbite of inside car)
Mr. PIERSMA: OK.
(Soundbite of car door closing)
Mr. PIERSMA: So, what we're going to do, why don't you look in your mirrors, adjust them as you would for driving.
SMITH: OK. Yeah, you're right, I can't see that bike at all.
Mr. PIERSMA: Can you see any of the cones back there even?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PIERSMA: So we know at a minimum the blindspot is over 20 feet because those cones that were behind us were 20 feet back there and they're 32-inches high. So that little bike, which was 15 feet back there, we can't see at all. So if there was a child on that bike riding by you as you started your car up in the morning to back out for work, you would not see that little kid behind your car.
SMITH: For most cars, the blind zone is about 10 to 15 feet. It's roughly 15 to 30 feet for trucks and SUVs.
Next, we do the test with the video display in the mirror.
(Soundbite of inside car)
Mr. PIERSMA: Nice. Now, put your foot on the brake. And now we'll put this in reverse and then look at the mirror and boom.
Mr. PIERSMA: There you go.
SMITH: The little pink bike is only about half an inch tall in the screen. But I can make it out the instant I put the car in gear.
David Champion test vehicles at Consumer Reports and thinks the mirrors are a promising safety advancement. But he warns that camera location on the back of the vehicle can make all the difference.
Mr. DAVID CHAMPION (Consumer Reports): Some people put it sort of underneath the lip of the trunk lid above the license plate, which seems to collect a lot of dirt in that area. Especially in these winter conditions where you have muck on the road and it sprays up, that reduces the visibility tremendously of what you can see behind.
SMITH: Gentex has been shipping the backup camera mirrors to carmakers for nearly four years. This month, it's shifting manufacturing operations to a new plant down the street to accommodate the expected boom in the high-tech-mirror business.
That's because the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is getting involved. It's now reviewing comments from safety groups, businesses and drivers across the country about proposed changes to require all new cars to have some sort of rearview camera display by 2014.
For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Smith.
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