Will side-view cameras be the next vehicle technology embraced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)? That's what Tesla and a coalition of automakers are angling for.
Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) have petitioned NHTSA to allow them to use side-view cameras as an alternative to standard side mirrors, which have been required on cars since 1968. They argue that cameras are safer because they provide a wider viewing area and trim fuel costs due to improved aerodynamics when jutting mirrors are removed.
The request comes in the wake of NHTSA's recent ruling that all light-duty vehicles sold in the U.S. must have rear-view cameras within four years. NHTSA believes these cameras will reduce deaths and injuries from "backover" accidents.
NHTSA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, said in a 2010 report that 210 people die and 15,000 are injured every year in backover accidents. Almost a third (31 percent) of the deaths are children under 5, with 26 percent being adults older than 70. NHTSA's rule, which affects cars, SUVs, trucks and vans, will begin phasing in on May 1, 2016. Full compliance is mandated by May 1, 2018.
In making its case for side-view mirrors, the AAM also underscored the safety benefits. "Camera-based systems have already been recognized as helpful to drivers who experience diminished upper body range of motion, enabling them to make full use of the available fields of view, including checking blind spots," according to the petition.
The petition also suggests there would be 2 to 7 percent less drag with the cameras, which "would produce a 3.2 percent improvement in fuel economy." Automakers based their conclusions on data compiled by scientist Wolf-Heinrich Hucho in his book, "Aerodynamics of Road Vehicles."
At the time of this posting, NHTSA had not responded to a request for its stance on side-view cameras or the petition. But it's unlikely that any rule would be coming soon -- the backup camera regulation took several years to become law despite congressional approval in 2007.
Paul A. Green, a professor who has researched car cameras for the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, told Slate's "Future Tense" site that he supports backups but is less sanguine about costly side-view cameras replacing relatively cheap mirrors.
Rear-view cameras are intended for short-range, occasional use, and even low-tech cameras improve upon the visibility of standard mirrors, Green says. But side-view mirrors are used constantly by drivers, so a camera replacement would have to have superior capabilities, which would mean it would be much more expensive than a "simple, functioning piece of glass."
But Green added that vehicle safety could be enhanced if side-view cameras had advanced technology like infrared sensitivity for night driving or even thermal imaging to help motorists in bad weather.
Car insurance discounts and cutting-edge safety features
More advanced safeguards, such as backup or side-view cameras, may help you avoid hazards, but it's unlikely they'll reduce your insurance premiums. The industry hasn't put them on its list of car insurance discounts and probably won't for awhile, if ever.
The reason, according to the industry, is that it takes time to study a system's effectiveness and determine if there's an actuarial benefit to their business. Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute (III), says if a safety evolution is shown to reduce the number of crash claims, then insurers may pass some of the lower costs to consumers.
"I would think that there has to be clear proof that there are savings related to the reduction of accidents," she says. "It's likely that airbags were looked at over the course of many years" before they began snagging discounts.
But there are several safety discounts available now that can help consumers chisel at their insurance bill. Here are the more common ones:
- Air bags -- You'll get a discount if your car has front air bags, but you'll get a bigger rate cut if it has both dual front air bags and side air bags. The discount is usually seen under your policy's medical payments and personal injury protection (PIP) section, and some insurers will also discount liability coverages.
- Anti-lock brakes -- A handful of states, including Florida, New Jersey and New York, require an insurer to provide a discount. But many insurers will reward one anyway if your vehicle has them. The discount, typically about 5 percent, may be applied to your liability, PIP, medical payments and collision coverages.
- Seat belts -- A discount may be available if the car has automatic seat belts.
- Crash-resistant doors -- Some insurers provide a 5 percent or less discount if your car has them.
- Electronic stability control (ESC) -- A few insurers have added a discount of about 5 percent when a vehicle comes with the factory-installed system.
- Daytime running lights -- A 5 percent discount off your liability, PIP, medical payments and collision coverage may be offered.