Very expensive cars come with very cool features, like head-up displays, automated parking and even night-vision systems. To a greater or lesser extent you can give your 10 year old beater similar features through aftermarket upgrades, but it is not always advisable.
Such is the case with the Flir PathFindIR II thermal night vision system. Of course you want to give your car night vision, putting it on par with the Batmobile or KITT, but installation, cost and even legislation is likely to prove prohibitive.
To test the PathFindIR II, I installed it on CNET's trusty test car, the Chevy Aveo. At $2,500 (£1,664, AU$3,198) for the basic system, including camera, CPU and cabling, the PathFindIR II was worth more than the actual car. Flir also provided me with the $750 installation kit (£494, AU$965), which includes a monitor, further enhancing the value of the little Aveo.
Flir recommends installing the camera behind the grille, at about 2 feet from the ground. The Aveo's grille is a plastic insert in a narrow aperture, offering very little flexibility for camera positioning. The camera itself is a blocky 2.5 inches thick (6.4cm) and 2.5 inches per side (6.4cm), almost a cube, with a video cable port off the bottom.
For a clean install, I might have drilled holes in the grille surround for the camera's mounting bracket, and cut a hole in the plastic grille for the lens to see through. As this would be a temporary install for testing, I merely removed the entire grille insert and attached the mount to a single hole.
As the camera lens cannot turn independent of the body, the whole camera piece needs to be mounted with the cable port running downwards. The mounting arm included in the installation kit provided that flexibility, but this limitation could prove problematic on some installs.
The CPU part of the PathFindIR II comes encased in metal, a flat rectangular piece with ports for video cables measuring almost 6 by 4 inches (about 15x10cm). The PathFindIR II manual says the CPU should be mounted in the car's cabin to prevent weather damage, and its size makes it possible to hide it away under the dashboard. There are no controls on the CPU, so once mounted, you won't need to access it. For my temporary install I merely left it cabled up in the passenger footwell.
For the final piece of the puzzle, I could have mounted the LCD monitor included in the installation kit on top of the dashboard, but instead chose to use the Pioneer AVIC 8000NEX navigation head unit already in the dashboard. That head unit included a video input, suitable for the PathFindIR II's video cable, and I could splice the PathFindIR II's power cables into the existing wiring harness.
Flir's manual recommends having an installer do all this dirty work, reasonable as it involves running cable from the front of the car into the cabin, and mounting the camera and CPU cleanly and securely. That said, I was impressed how simple the PathFindIR II proved to put in place. Despite the temporary mountings I performed, getting the PathFindIR II working was simply a matter of plugging cables in from camera to CPU, and CPU to monitor.
Driving the now night vision-equipped Aveo, the image on the monitor showed grainy black and white, an infrared image of the world in front of the car. With a 24-degree field of view, the image caught traffic and pedestrians immediately in front and in each lane to the right and left.
Other cars were easy to see on the monitor, and brake lights did not blow out the image, but those cars were also easy to see through the windshield on city-lit streets. Buildings and city infrastructure appeared in good detail on the monitor, although I could not make out the state of traffic lights.
The PathFindIR II's real benefit is its ability to recognize pedestrians. This is where the system's CPU comes in. As people crossed the darkened streets in front of me, their ghostly images on the monitor were framed in yellow boxes. The real-time video processing managed to pick out groups and single pedestrians in the camera's view, using the yellow borders to clearly outline their presence.
The framing wasn't precise. Amongst a crowd of pedestrians in a crosswalk, the system would only highlight a few. For a pedestrian on the sidewalk, the yellow frame popped in and out as the system temporarily lost recognition. And although the Flir's manual notes that the system should also detect bicyclists, I did not see it successfully frame any that crossed my path.
Driving down a dark alley, I was impressed to see the monitor pick up a bystander leaning against a building wall far in the distance, whom I could not easily see through the windshield. And that is the main benefit of the PathFindIR II, warning drivers of obstacles obscured by darkness.
Flir also notes that the system should detect four-legged animals, such as deer and cows, very useful in a rural setting. Not having a herd of elk handy, I was unable to test that aspect of the system. After seeing how it handled the crowded urban environment, I would expect it to do even better picking out a trio of deer on a dark highway.
The imagery from the PathFindIR II is not all that sophisticated. The yellow boxes serve as a decent warning, but when it comes to graphics, they are a bit crude, and the system offers no graphics to show direction of travel or speed. The CPU uses library detection, comparing the imagery it detects to a set of images it knows to be pedestrians, cyclists or animals. As such, it will have a difficult time recognizing partially obscured objects.
The CPU lacks persistence memory, meaning it won't maintain tracking of a pedestrian it recognizes. As such, it will lose recognition, and the yellow box, if that pedestrian becomes partially obscured, re-recognizing that person when back in view. A more sophisticated system would maintain memory of each pedestrian in its view, and be able to extrapolate recognition when another object intervenes.
The positioning of this monitor in the Aveo, in the center stack, wasn't optimal for viewing while driving. Mercedes-Benz offers a night vision option that shows up in the instrument cluster, putting it closer to the driver's field of view. I could have used the monitor included in the PathFindIR II's installation kit, placing it on the dashboard for a more direct view, but that raises an important issue.
Many states in the US make it illegal to have a video monitor in view of the driver, although some of these laws specifically ban television signals. A video signal showing the vehicle's surroundings, similar to a back-up camera, may pass legal muster. That said, viewing the PathFinIR II signal involves occasional glances at the screen, especially when the road ahead looks particularly dark.
Given the cost of Flir's PathFindIR II and the involved installation, night vision isn't going to be for everyone. Installing the camera on the Chevy Aveo, I found this system makes better sense for trucks and larger vehicles, which offer a little more space for the equipment. As for installation, the system is pretty much plug-and-play, so a reasonably competent mechanic could set it up. The optional installation kit offers some useful pieces of equipment.
I called out the crudity of the system graphics and the lack of sophisticated computing. That said, you won't find such sophisticated systems in the aftermarket at present.
The cost of the system will definitely be prohibitive, but if the PathFindIR II can help you avoid hitting a large animal on a dark, rural road, it will justify itself.