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BMW ditches mirrors for a safer side-view camera system

BMW brings its i8 Mirrorless concept to CES 2016, demonstrating a functional camera system designed to completely replace side and rearview mirrors.

This story is part of CES 2016. Our editors bring you complete CES 2016 coverage and scour the showroom floor for the hottest new tech gadgets around.
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For years, automakers have shown concept cars with cameras in place of side-view mirrors, but here at CES 2016 in Las Vegas, BMW let me drive a working demonstration of a side-view camera system that eliminates blind spots and gives smart traffic alerts.

For its i8 Mirrorless concept, BMW replaces the side mirrors with cameras, improving aerodynamics and rear visibility.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Implemented on a BMW i8, a car that already looks like it came from the future, the system took imagery from four cameras around the car, showing it as a single video image on a display where the rearview mirror would be. As I drove down Las Vegas Boulevard, I saw a surprisingly clear and wide panoramic view of traffic to the rear and sides, and with just a little time behind the wheel, I began to rely on this different view to see when it was safe to change lanes.

Side-view mirrors have been a standard, and mandated, feature in cars for decades, letting us see if the lanes next to us are clear. However, side mirrors notoriously leave a blind spot, which has caused many accidents. And while we've come to accept these odd protuberances on the sides of our cars, they hurt a car's aerodynamic qualities and create wind noise.

With the advent of inexpensive digital-camera systems, concept cars in the recent past have employed them to create a more cohesive design. In the BMW i8 Mirrorless, as the company calls its concept car, the side-view camera system moves from concept to something that could be considered a prototype, as BMW considers it a real possibility for cars of the near future.

For this concept, the i8 Mirrorless still sports struts off the doors, but these support cameras instead of mirrors, and the cameras are slimmer and more aerodynamic than traditional mirrors. Philipp Hoffmann, BMW's project manager of Camera Monitor Systems, said the cameras improve the car's aerodynamics by 3 percent, leading to about a 1 percent increase in range.

In addition, two stereoscopic cameras, mounted under the rear hatch glass, show what is directly behind the car, also serving as a backup camera for parking.

Instead of a rearview mirror, BMW hung a side LCD display from the top of the windshield. Although this display is taller than a typical rearview mirror, its bottom edge is at the same height as that in the standard i8.

To demonstrate the concept, Hoffman showed the system with a three-panel display, the view directly behind complemented by views from the side cameras. During a backing maneuver, those side views let me clearly see poles that I might miss in the rearview display.

For its driving display, BMW's mirrorless system fuses the imagery from four cameras into a single, wide image, complete with a representation of the car shown in the middle, to give the driver perspective.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Heading out on the road, the real magic began. Hoffman switched the display to its driving mode, fusing the imagery from each camera into a video image that appeared to come from a single camera. BMW implements a representation of the i8 in the middle, which helped me understand the viewpoint, so it seems like the camera view is looking back from above the car's canopy.

The imagery was bright and clear, much more informative than what I usually see in side and rear-view mirrors. And further showing the benefit, rain obscured the view out the side windows, which would have impacted my view of the side mirrors. However, the view from the cameras on the center display remained clear.

BMW uses Gorilla Glass to cover the side cameras, and has a heating element to melt snow and ice, making the system more weather-resistant than side mirrors.

As part of the concept, the processor for the system analyzes the imagery and displays a warning if there is a car coming up fast on either right or left side, alerting the driver when it's not safe to change lanes. However, a traditional blind-spot monitor system isn't necessary here, as the camera view completely eliminates blind spots.

Though it's a concept car for now, Hoffman told me that the company is talking to government officials in the Europe, the US and other markets, hoping to get rules modified that often mandate actual mirrors for side visibility. The future seems promising, as BMW will begin testing the system on European roads this year, with approval for testing likely to come from the US Department of Transportation for 2017.

See all CNET's coverage of CES 2016 here.