LAS VEGAS — At CES 2016, BMW debuted a new version of the i8, its tech-forward hybrid supercar, that features cameras in place of traditional sideview mirrors and a digital display instead of a rear-view mirror. It's clear a lot of hard work brought this project to life with such impressive execution, but even BMW may not have realized the impact of its accomplishment, because the lone test model was booked solid every day of the show.
I managed to squeeze myself into an appointment (the back seat of an i8 is a pretty tight fit) to be able to tell you why such a seemingly small change is actually a pretty big deal.
In the automotive world, many innovations get dismissed as just more items that can go wrong. So on the i8, swapping out simple mirrors for a complicated cameras made out of fragile sensors, water-sensitive circuit boards and frayable wires might look like a fool's errand. But the payoff is worth it.
The first big reason is the vastly improved field of view. A standard side-view mirror has a cone of vision of just 12 degrees, while the cameras on BMW’s mirrorless i8 feature a 50-degree field of view that’s more than four times wider.
Then comes the next benefit. BMW takes the two feeds from the cameras on each sides, along with the feed from a third camera hidden inside the rear windshield, and combines them into a single display that replaces the traditional rear-view mirror.
This three-camera composite almost completely eliminates any blind spots — and then BMW takes it yet another step forward, which is when the real magic happens.
Other companies have tried replacing mirrors with cameras, and a few have been moderately successful. What BMW has done differently is to stitch the three composite views into a single, seamless image. There are no distracting borders or overlapping views, meaning that even a quick glimpse gives you all the information you need.
Finally, BMW's system creates helpful overlays on the display, so that if you back into a parking space, you get estimates of your distance from other objects, and proximity warnings if you get too close. The cameras also use a different display algorithm when you're reversing, offering a zoomed-in view showing fine details of what's around you.
Unfortunately, there's one major problem facing the BMW i8 mirrorless. Replacing normal sideview mirrors with cameras isn't exactly legal in many countries. In Europe there would be no problem, but in the United States and most of Asia, guidelines still require the use of regular mirrors.
Yet BMW said it expects a U.S. regulatory change by 2017 that would allow the use of this technology, with China and South Korea hopefully following suit in 2018.
BMW won't offer the feature until it's 100 percent compliant with local laws, so Americans are beholden to the government to say OK and deliver us from the Dark Ages. But for me, seeing is believing, and I'm sure that eventually the bureaucrats will come to their senses, although some clever prodding might not hurt.