How Back-Up Cameras Work and What’s Coming Next

On the evening of Octo­ber 19, 2002, pedi­a­tri­cian Greg Gul­bransen walked out his front door to move the family’s sport-util­i­ty vehi­cle into the dri­ve­way. Unbe­knownst to him, his 2-year-old son Cameron fol­lowed. Gul­bransen was back­ing up when he felt a small bump, dis­cov­er­ing only after it was too late that he’d acci­den­tal­ly run over and killed the boy.

On March 31, 2014, the Nation­al High­way Trans­porta­tion Safe­ty Admin­is­tra­tion (NHTSA) final­ized a long-delayed reg­u­la­tion meant to reduce back-overs, a key part of a 2007 dri­ving safe­ty act named for Cameron Gul­bransen. The reg­u­la­tion sets a 2018 dead­line for rearview mon­i­tor­ing tech­nol­o­gy to be stan­dard on pas­sen­ger vehi­cles sold or leased in the Unit­ed States.

Dri­vers don’t have to wait until 2018, though, to get a car with a cam­era that shows them what’s behind their back bumper. 

♦ Back-up cam­era sys­tems will have to meet fed­er­al stan­dards, but how they oper­ate varies.
The but­ton-size devices are posi­tioned so dri­vers can see peo­ple or objects that are oth­er­wise unde­tectable using a side or rearview mir­ror or by glanc­ing over their shoul­der. When NHTSA’s rear vis­i­bil­i­ty reg­u­la­tion takes effect, it will require rearview tech­nol­o­gy to dis­play a 10-by-20-foot area direct­ly behind the vehi­cle. The rule also requires sys­tems to show the dri­ver an image of the area no more than 2 sec­onds after they put the vehi­cle into reverse.

♦ By sev­er­al esti­mates, back-up cam­eras can help pre­vent acci­dents.
In one recent study, close to 57 per­cent of dri­vers in vehi­cles equipped with back-up cam­eras avoid­ed back­ing over a sta­tion­ary object that had been placed behind the vehi­cle when they weren’t look­ing. The March 2014 research report from the Insur­ance Insti­tute for High­way Safe­ty (IIHS) also found that three-quar­ters of dri­vers in vehi­cles with both rearview cam­eras and audi­ble sen­sors avoid­ed a back-over acci­dent.

♦ Cam­eras can add big costs to new cars. But it’s not real­ly their fault.
Ini­tial­ly, rearview cam­eras were part of option­al bun­dles on vehi­cles’ cost­lier trim lev­els. One rea­son was that sys­tems need­ed an in-dash dis­play to work, and those screens only came on the most expen­sive mod­els. Automak­ers know peo­ple like cam­eras, and so man­u­fac­tur­ers have been attach­ing them to the high­est trim lev­els.

♦ Cam­eras are migrat­ing to less expen­sive mod­els and trim lev­els.
Once they’re sep­a­rat­ed from oth­er fea­tures, rearview cam­era sys­tems aren’t that expen­sive. NHTSA esti­mates that adding back-up cam­eras and dis­plays that com­ply with the new reg­u­la­tions will cost man­u­fac­tur­ers $132-$142 more per vehi­cle, or $43-$45 for vehi­cles with an exist­ing screen that can dis­play the required image field.

♦ Adding a back-up cam­era is fair­ly eas­i­ly.
You don’t need to buy a new car to get a back-up cam­era, though, or spend a lot to add one to an exist­ing vehi­cle. Retail­ers sell after­mar­ket sys­tems for less than $15 for a bot­tom-of-the-line stand-alone cam­era for vehi­cles that have exist­ing in-dash dis­plays. A com­plete set­up with a cam­era, trans­mit­ter and dis­play can run up to $300. Installing a back-up cam­era on an exist­ing car isn’t dif­fi­cult. Some require only a screw­driv­er, while oth­ers require a drill to mount the cam­era into a rear bumper cov­er.

♦ Grime, weath­er and time of day can affect how a cam­era func­tions.
Whether they’re fac­to­ry installed or after­mar­ket equip­ment, rearview cam­eras don’t need much more main­te­nance than a peri­od­ic wipe-down to clear away accu­mu­lat­ed grime from the cam­era lens. In heavy rain or snow, auto com­pa­ny rep­re­sen­ta­tives and after­mar­ket cam­era sell­ers sug­gest check­ing before you dri­ve off to make sure the lens isn’t obscured.

♦ Back-up cam­eras may pre­vent acci­dents, but they might not lead to low­er insur­ance rates.
NHTSA and IIHS may be con­vinced that rearview sys­tems save lives, but auto insur­ers could take decades to adjust rates for cus­tomers who use them, and one insur­ance indus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tive says even if rates drop, the decrease could be tiny.

♦ Back-up cam­eras are help­ful for more than avoid­ing acci­dents.
Though intend­ed to serve as safe­ty devices, back-up cam­eras also can be used to help dri­vers do a bet­ter job of back­ing into a park­ing spot or hitch­ing a trail­er.

Wait until you see the cam­era tech­nol­o­gy that’s com­ing next.




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