Selfies and Pinterest posts aside, cameras are playing a greater role in our society than ever before. They’re ubiquitous — in everything from your cellphone and laptop to the toll road you use and the red light you’re about to run.
And they’re about to take over your car.
In fact, chances are there’s already one or more in your vehicle if it’s of relatively recent vintage.
You may even have chosen to install one yourself to record your own driving experience, as a means of protecting yourself with a visual record in the event of collision or other incident.
Automakers, however, are adopting cameras in increasing numbers not to record what has happened but to monitor, predict and help control what’s going on now.
It started with backup cameras, which initially just showed what was behind the vehicle, providing an additional view of objects and areas too low and close to see through the rear-view mirror and rear window.
Such cameras will be mandatory on all light vehicles sold in the U.S (and presumably Canada, given that most of our safety regulations are harmonized) by 2018.
Assisted by rapidly developing computer technology, the basic backup cameras progressed first to providing the driver with visual guidance into a parking space, then to being the basis for cars to park themselves.
But backup cameras were just the first step. The real breakthrough in camera-based driving aids came with advances in image recognition technology, which enable computers to make sense of the pixels, identifying not only vehicles and other objects but pedestrians, bicyclists and even animals.
Now camera-based systems are used, in whole or in part, for a wide range of advanced driver-assistance systems, such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and control, lane centring, collision avoidance warning and auto braking.
The role they’ll play in the future will be of even greater import as they are central to most automakers’ experiments with autonomous driving. While they’re not likely to be the sole source of input for self-driving cars, they’ll almost certainly be one of the sources of information vehicles use to find and follow their own path and evade hazards along the way.
That dependence on cameras, however, may, be a limiting factor in the widespread adoption of such vehicles, at least outside areas where road definition and maintenance are of a consistent high quality.
As one Wheels reader points out, here in Ontario many road markings are either completely worn off or barely visible.
While they are generally quite good around the GTA, he says, such is not uniformly the case throughout the province.
“How can these systems work in such conditions?” he asks.
“I can only imagine what driving at night and in wet/snowy weather must be like!”
They are valid concerns. And they aren’t the only ones.
Companies developing such systems also cite conditions such as the blinding effect of headlights from oncoming vehicles, or even low bright sunlight, as well as the incursion of fast-moving objects as challenges that must be overcome.
Based on my own experience in a variety of vehicles with camera-based technologies, I can confirm that they do function as intended most of the time. Almost all the time. But there are occasional inconsistencies and the reasons for those inconsistencies, such as faded paint markings, are not always readily apparent.
More evident are the effects of ice, snow and dirt. If you’ve driven a vehicle with a backup camera through winter you’ve undoubtedly experienced the limits severe weather conditions impose.
Recognizing these realities, automakers typically qualify the capabilities of their driver-assistance systems with owners’ manual statements advising drivers not to rely solely on the systems and that they may not function properly in conditions such as snow and ice.
They’re continually striving to improve and expand those capabilities, however. Nissan, for example, has developed a self-cleaning backup camera with both a washer and compressed air drying system.
Some manufacturers, including Subaru, mount their cameras inside, behind the windshield, where they can take advantage of both defrosting and window washing/wiping functions.
As good as they are, there’s still a ways to go to ensure that camera-based driver assist systems can be relied on for vehicle control in all possible conditions.
Which is why redundant inputs from other sources such as GPS location, advanced mapping, and radar, laser and microwave sensors are likely to be used in conjunction with cameras as we progress toward truly autonomous vehicles.