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Looking back at the rearview camera

Introduced 20 years ago, this car tech changed the vehicle landscape and how we drive

By Evan Williams Wheels.ca

Feb 26, 2022 4 min. read

Article was updated 4 months ago

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It was only 20 years ago that the first in-car reversing camera made its debut in North America. Since then, these small-screen wonders have made a massive difference in how we drive.

When Infiniti’s third generation Q45 sedan hit dealer showrooms for 2002, it became the first car sold in Canada with a factory backup camera. The feature was promptly ignored by the press, with even the Toronto Star’s coverage of the car’s launch relegating it to an afterthought. Even our comparison test of the Q45 with the Audi A8 gave the feature barely a mention.

“I think what happened is that with third-gen Q45, there was so much stuff,” said Scott Pak, a senior product planning manager who had just started working with Infiniti in Canada at the time of the vehicle release. Along with the camera, the car had a 340 hp V8 engine, gatling-gun HID headlights, and even voice controls for audio, HVAC and navigation features. “I think it just got overshadowed.”

Infiniti

Since its unremarked debut two decades ago, cameras have evolved and have enabled even more new features to be added to vehicles. Some early lane departure and blind spot warning systems used the same rear-facing camera, along with computers working in the background.

“(In 2013) we only had one camera in the back. It would monitor the lanes from the back, and it would actually do the blind spot monitoring as well,” said Pak. “Because there was concern about frost or salt spray or whatnot, there was a little washer system built into that to keep it clean.”

The rearview camera became mandatory on May 1 2018, and today the average vehicle can have them located all over. Cameras in the mirrors and nose offer a 360-degree view around your vehicle. Honda and Hyundai offer in-dash views from cameras watching your blind spots, and automakers — including  Infiniti and General Motors – have inside mirrors doubling as screens that show you a high-definition view out the rear as you drive down the road.

These extra views have had a big impact on safety. When it added the camera requirement, Transport Canada said 27 deaths and 1,500 injuries between 2004 and 2009 were the result of accidents while reversing. Many of those involved young children.

In 2017, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a U.S. organization that is a leader in safety testing and data, examined four vehicle models that had optional cameras and found reportable reversing crashes fell up to 23 per cent when a vehicle had a camera. Crucially, cameras reduced crashes by 40 per cent for drivers 70 years of age and older, showing that cameras make reversing safer for those with mobility issues.

“Older drivers often have difficulty turning their heads, making rear cameras particularly useful,” said Jessica Cicchino, vice-president for research with IIHS. Data for the study included only crashes reported to police, and not those in smaller crashes with minor injuries or property damage that led to no official report.

Backup cameras are now so ingrained into new vehicles that they’re influencing technology. Pak said the need to have cameras always monitoring has led to smart systems that pre-boot the camera when they detect an approaching vehicle.

What does Pak see into the future of the in-car camera?

“We’ve seen cameras on the outside, we’re going to see cameras on the inside,” he said, adding cameras to make sure you’re watching the road will be “incredibly important for the next levels of autonomous driving.”

You can expect in-vehicle facial recognition, like facial identification on your iPhone, that will scan your face and adjusts your vehicle to your specific settings and preferences.

More integrated dashcam features are on the way. BMW’s latest 3D Surround View, found on the BMW iX and other models, use multiple cameras and impressive image processing to give you a view not just of what is around your vehicle, but also lets you see an outside view of your car in its environment – just like getting out of your vehicle while parking in real life to see how much room you have.

BMW

Looking Back

In the 1950s, the sky was the limit for concept vehicles from the Big Three automakers. It was the Buick Centurion concept car, with its bubble canopy, that first gave us a glimpse of the future of reversing with its a rear-facing camera and a basic CRT screen.

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