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Driving at night can be dangerous. The main issue is that the headlights on a car can only illuminate so far, and when driving at a good speed, objects in the path can creep up quickly. Add to the equation the blinding glare of oncoming headlights, or soaking wet, reflecting road surfaces and you’ve got an accident about to happen. Fortunately, there is a technology solution that can make these driving conditions less difficult.

Night vision

Human eyes are sensitive detectors that have evolved to detect visible light. However, there are other forms of light that humans cannot see. At one end of the spectrum, we cannot see ultraviolet light, while at the other end human eyes cannot see infrared light. Let’s take a closer look at the later: infrared light.

The primary source of infrared light is thermal radiation or “heat.” Any object that has a temperature above absolute zero (-273.15 degrees C) emits radiation in the infrared region of the emission spectrum. Even objects that we think of as being very cold, such as a piece of ice, emit infrared radiation. Although our eyes cannot see it, we can feel it. The heat we feel from a fire, a radiator, or from a light bulb is the sensation that infrared radiation creates.

Seeing “red”

In order to see infrared light, we need an infrared detector that can image the infrared profile of warm objects. The electronic signal from this detector is fed into a processing chip that converts the infrared image into an image that humans can see; typically, on an LCD screen. In the case of an automobile, this would appear on the Infotainment Systems screen on the dash.

Who is doing it?

BMW was one of the first car makers to install infrared systems on their automobiles. Called the “BMW Night Vision” system, the option was first installed in 2005 on their top of the line, 7-series models. “The first aim of the BMW Night Vision systems is to detect living objects, such as pedestrians and animals, which are not illuminated in total darkness.”, explains BMW. “With a thermal imaging camera, people can be detected at a range of about 300 meters. This is much further than with headlights.”

According to Alfa Romeo Fiat of Larchmont, a local Alfa Romeo, Fiat dealer in Larchmont, NY, Alfa will offer a night vision system on their new SUV, the Stelvio.

Night vision advantages

Due to its long range detection capability (up to 300m for a human being in the road,) BMW Night Vision provides a time gain of about 5 seconds at a speed of 100 km/h compared to high beam headlights. This means that drivers have more time to react and can avoid accidents.

The infotainment display is not in the direct sight of the driver but the human eye can easily and quickly detect moving things in its peripheral view. Once a moving object is detected, the driver can have a quick glance at the screen to see what is happening. The monitor quickly becomes a natural checkpoint for the driver similar to side view or rearview mirrors.


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