Updated: Feb 23, 2021
We’ve all had this experience while driving: You want to change lanes, so you glance over at the side mirror. When you see nothing, you bump on the turn signal and start to swerve into the other lane—only to discover there was a car in your blind spot, which sends you jerking the wheel to return to your original lane.
Okay, you’re supposed to check your blind spot before switching
lanes. But what if there is no window? Or what if the window is blocked? Or what if you just forget?
Another scenario we’ve all experienced has us suddenly realizing we need to switch lanes to make our exit, only to discover there’s a cluster of cars blocking us from moving over. Now, you have to thread your way into the other lane between multiple vehicles, which means turning your head almost all the way around and mentally gauging the other vehicles’ speeds. Meanwhile, you’re not paying any attention to what’s directly ahead of you.
Making Blind Spots Partially Visible
These problems are as old as driving. And better solutions are coming online all the time. Curved mirrors, cameras, and sensors have all been used to address the difficulties and dangers of these scenarios. But the distorted images in mirrors, while helpful, can be hard to interpret, and they still leave parts of the zone surrounding the vehicle impossible to see.
Cameras are great too, but you have to take your eyes off the road to check the monitor, and you’ll often have to change views on the monitor to find the side you’re looking for. Plus, it’s next to impossible to get a sense of where you are in relation to another vehicle from a mere image on a screen. Sensors likewise alert you that another vehicle is in your blind spot, but they don’t offer any help locating that vehicle precisely.
For most cars and trucks, a backup camera and a few sensors on each side make for significantly safer driving than was possible in the days of flat mirrors and naked eyes. But even the passenger vehicles with the most easily accessible views are still plagued by visibility issues when it comes to navigating around multiple other vehicles hanging out in areas the driver has to turn around to see. Matters only get worse as the dimensions of the vehicle get bigger.
That’s why transit and transportation companies—and even some in the construction industry—are starting to outfit their vehicles with a new type of technology.
Enter the 360 Bird’s-Eye View
When it comes to large vehicles with especially problematic blind spots, the most powerful tool for gaining visibility into spaces on every side is a 360 camera system. These systems usually consist of four HD fish-eye cameras, one on each side, and a processing unit that stitches all four images together into a seamless bird’s-eye view of the vehicle and its surroundings. (Though the vehicle in the rendered image is actually a digital model, since the cameras aren’t pointed at the real one.)
With these 360 systems, you essentially get the same view as you would from a drone flying overhead while you’re driving. The advantages to this view from above are that you can see all the surrounding space with a glance at a single monitor, meaning you don’t need to check mirrors, then windows, then monitors to know if it’s safe to turn or switch lanes. And, with proper calibration, there are no blind spots for the driver to worry about.
In other words, the driver can get total environmental awareness with a single look at a single screen. And drivers don’t just learn if there’s another vehicle next to them; they also know exactly where that other vehicle is in relation to their own.
Challenges and Drawbacks
The most difficult step in installing a 360 camera system is the calibration. The way most providers handle this is to arrange a set of patterned mats around the vehicle. The system’s software will then prompt the installers to line the cameras up with various overlapping elements of the patterns, so it can calculate precisely where each camera is in relation to the other cameras and in relation to the vehicle itself.
As simple as this sounds, you can imagine all the added hassles of climbing around on and rolling out mats on each side of a hundred-foot truck. The alignment process itself is often tricky and time-consuming as well. The installers have no choice but to put in the time though, because improper calibration can lead to faulty stitching and distorted images. It may even leave blind spots in the wrap-around view.
To get around this issue, engineers have developed new 360 systems that let OEMs simply enter in the standard dimensions of the vehicle in question. That means you can get the measurements for the first vehicle and then transfer them into all the others. At that point, you can simply pull each vehicle onto some pre-painted patterns and do a quicker calibration by hitting a single button. Especially for managers of large fleets, this shortcut can potentially shorten the installation process by weeks.
The other drawback to 360 cameras is that drivers just aren’t used to them. Most of us have been looking at side and rearview mirrors since we first climbed behind the wheel. Backup cameras feeding into a monitor in the dashboard have become a mainstay in newer vehicles, but many drivers (myself included) still prefer to use the mirrors to see behind the vehicle—or the old hand on the passenger headrest twisting routine. Training yourself to automatically check, and then make sense of, a completely different type of image can take some practice.
Developers of 360 systems are finding workarounds for this issue as well. First and most obvious, the bird’s-eye vantage is already easier to make sense of than other views, so it usually doesn’t take all that much time to learn to respond appropriately to what you see. Second, the system includes triggers that you can set to activate different views from around the vehicle. For instance, if you want to see what’s in the lane beside you before merging, you can set a trigger to make turning on your turn signal activate a side view. You’re still looking at the same monitor, but you’re getting whatever view is most relevant to what you need to do.
It’s easy to imagine 360 camera systems becoming ubiquitous on newly manufactured vehicles, just as backup cameras have in the past decade or so. But it’s in industries like construction and public transit where complete visibility into the space surrounding a vehicle can really help to improve safety and ease of navigation. Maybe the biggest headwind facing the providers of these 360 systems, though, is the approaching dawn of the age of autonomous vehicles. Of course, self-driving cars and trucks will need to check their blind spots too, so maybe they’ll simply use a different version of the technology.
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