2012 Car Night Vision Technology

by Don Elliott on May 2, 2012

In Hollywood movies, night vision is used to help our protagonist find the bad guys. We often see this in Sci-Fi movies with unrealistic portrays of car night vision technology, like being able to see for miles on a pitch black night, as if it were daylight.

Today’s car night vision isn’t quite that advanced yet, but Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Toyota and General Motors have all developed progressive car night vision systems. The technology varies quite a bit between the different developers, but all have found different forms of success.

How Car Night Vision Works

Night vision utilizes infrared light, a shorter wave light not visible to the human eye. Car night vision systems utilize either thermal imaging or photon detection. Thermal imaging passively recognizes heat sources, identifying people or animals by detecting the heat emitted versus the colder surrounding surfaces. Active photon detection or image enhancing takes photons from the ambient light and converts them to electrons yielding the fairly clear images represented most often by the Hollywood magic makers.

General Motors was the first to offer car night vision in the 2000 Cadillac DeVille. The heads up display was innovative, but discontinued in 2004. GM, Audi and BMW all utilize passive systems that capture thermal night vision radiation by camera, able to detect humans and animals headed into the path of the car up to 1000 feet ahead. Passive systems offer an audible warning if a collision is imminent.

Mercedes and Lexus have active systems that use an infrared light source that is invisible to humans. The beamed light provides a clearer image than passive systems but its range is shorter and does not work well in snow, fog or rain.

Car and Driver reviewed three car night vision systems in their upcoming June 2012 issue.

BMW 750i – The thermal night vision camera is located in the grille, providing a greenish glow on the navigation screen located to the driver’s right, not directly in his line of sight. This $2600 option was able to spot a human form at 300 feet.

Mercedes-Benz CL550 – Mercedes projects infrared radiation and picks it up on the windshield mounted infrared camera. The black and white image is projected on a screen mounted in the instrument cluster. For just $3490 as part of the Premium Package 2, the Mercedes system alerts the driver of a detected human with “four blasts of the diverted headlight.”

Audi A8L – Audi uses a passive system similar to the BMW system, with better results for the Car and Driver test crew. Audi was able to identify a human form at more than 500 feet, displaying the figure in a bright yellow box on the display screen also located in the instrument cluster. The Audi system costs $2300 and can be used in daylight as well as at night.

Each of these cars needs special features to maintain their new car value reputation. At base 2012 MSRP prices of $74,495, $71,181, and $81,925 respectively, a couple of thousand dollars for the car night vision safety feature definitely qualifies as a luxury item that might not pay back as added used car value. Not to mention automotive repair costs. If something were to go wrong with the new technology, finding an auto repair place that can do the job may be tough. Consider all the variables wisely before investing in this technology.

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