Vehicle cameras are fantastic, but they’ll never replace mirrors

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Some of the best improvements to modern cars are the countless cameras placed around them. Even on cars with good visibility, cameras offer so many benefits. They help us see things while backing up, find curbs when parking, check blind spots, and connect and maneuver trailers. We even gave Kia a Tech of the Year award, in part for the company’s hugely useful blind spot cameras, which also appear on our durable Hyundai Palisade. They’ve also gotten better over time, with greater resolution and useful overlays.

They are so good that the decades-long dream of car designers to use cameras and screens for rear-view mirrors seems possible. In Europe and Japan, you can even get cars with only cameras for mirrors, such as the Honda E and Audi E-Tron. They offer potential aerodynamic improvements and even wider viewing angles. And yet, despite all this, I think it would be foolish to get rid of the old-fashioned mirror.

The reasons are actually quite simple. First, there is clarity. As good as cameras have become, they are still not as sharp as real images reflected in your eye. It’s the highest definition you can see, quite literally. And it has no issues with graininess or poor exposures in poor lighting. And if you’re trying to merge into a different lane with a lot of traffic, you’ll want as clear a view as possible.

In that sense, mirrors are much less affected by bad weather and the aforementioned poor lighting. I’ve driven many cars in heavy rain and snow, and they often turn blind spot cameras into a blurry, muddy mess that is completely useless. In the dark, bright headlights can also be a problem. Even in salty conditions, salt residue and other dirt can build up. Yes, mirrors can contain ice, but heated mirrors fix that, and rainwater slides off anyway. In addition, the interior mirror is not affected and the rear window almost always has a demister and sometimes a rear wiper, making it largely insensitive to weather influences.

Furthermore, mirrors offer something that cameras can’t, or at least not with the displays in use today: depth perception. This is something I have become aware of when using some rear view cameras in rear view mirrors. Because the mirror reflects exactly what’s outside, it’s basically like looking out a window with your own eyes, giving you a three-dimensional image and allowing you to estimate the distance. Of course, that’s very helpful when deciding whether there’s room to insert, or even parking, and doesn’t require guidelines. In addition, the depth perception allows your eyes to focus as if they were looking at a more distant object. This allows your eyes to easily move from looking ahead through the windshield to the mirrors. With cameras you look at a two-dimensional image. You get no sense of distance and your eyes are focused on the screen, a greater change than looking at the object in the distance.

Finally, mirrors are absolutely reliable. It is a piece of glass on a reflective surface. It doesn’t need anything else to work. It doesn’t need power, wiring harnesses, cameras, lenses, screens. It has almost no failure points. Anecdotally, my parents’ Mazda3 has developed an issue where the rear view camera stops working, seemingly because the wire sometimes disconnects on a hard hit from the hatch.

I’m not saying that cameras are bad. As I noted in the opening paragraphs, they are pretty awesome, and I like having them, a lot of them. But they are especially useful as a supplement to the mirrors and for specific situations where mirrors are limited. And really, having both is the absolute ideal. New technology is good, but it’s even better when combined with the best old technology.

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