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Publisher's Letter

What’s next on the automotive wish list?

Recent road trips have had me thinking about what could be improved in modern cars, in terms of safety and ease of driving. While features such as keyless entry and starting, Bluetooth and USB connectivity and DVD screens for the rear seat passengers undoubtedly have their merits, they do little for road safety. Perhaps I should qualify that; on a recent long trip with two rambunctious grandsons, I have to admit the DVDs were very good for keeping them entertained (and blissfully quiet!).

Self-parking and adaptive cruise control, pedestrian detect, collision avoidance and headlights which point around corners are all good too, although most are rather expensive at the moment. They will undoubtedly become cheaper as they filter down to a wider range of cars. But none of these really help with everyday ease of driving or road safety. Or if they do, they are not along the lines that I am thinking.

What is the biggest problem with modern cars? All-round vision is the answer. All cars have their driver blind spots but modern cars seem to be getting worse. The biggest offenders are so-called SUVs which seem to be very popular with families; not because they can go off-road but because they are seen to be rugged and supposedly offering greater safety in a collision. Well, if you equate “heavy” with “rugged” then the bigger SUVs certainly fit into this category but it does not necessarily mean greater safety in a collision, as evidenced by ANSCAP ratings.

Paradoxically too, while SUVs are higher off the road than conventional sedans, giving a better view of the road ahead, they are notoriously difficult to see out of when parking. So much so that many SUVs now have optional rear-view cameras – so that you can see what’s behind the vehicle! Part of this problem though is because the rear window in so many of these vehicles is too small. The stylists have sacrificed vision to styling. That complaint also applies to many sedans and hatchbacks as well, with some having ludicrously small rear windows and thick pillars. And of course, many cars also have heavily tinted windows.

Which begs the question: if rear visibility on modern cars is so poor, why aren’t rear-view cameras a standard feature? Taking the idea a bit further, why not simply get rid of the rear view mirror altogether? They seldom give a full view of the rear window which itself is often partly obscured by head rests and assorted stuff on the parcel shelf. External rear view mirrors are also problematic, with those on the passenger’s side being convex and so giving a wider but distorted view. And of course, external rear view mirrors must inevitably increase the overall drag of the vehicle.

So why not dispense with rear view mirrors altogether and replace them with three cameras? Carefully placed, they could eliminate all blind spots at the rear.

There would be other advantages as well. It would enable the rear window and rear quarter windows to be eliminated. In hot climates like Australia this would mean far less heat transmission (via glass). As well, since glass is heavy, it could mean a reduction in weight while making the cabin stronger. Finally, it would mean the end of that bane of night driving, being blasted by bright headlights from the rear. I am assuming here that video processing of the camera video signals would overcome overload problems.

In case the concept of a vehicle with no rear window seems too radical or impractical, there are precedents. For a start, trucks don’t have rear windows or if they do, they are obscured by the load. Second, some concept vehicles have been produced with cameras and no rear window. While they may have looked odd, the concept could certainly be made to work. What do you think?

Leo Simpson


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