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Japan moves quickly into mirrorless cars

5 Juillet 2016 - Automotive News

Japan moves quickly into mirrorless cars

Go to any auto show and there will likely be a futuristic concept car that has ditched its rearview or sideview mirrors.

Designers may have substituted unobtrusive camera lenses that barely bud from the sheet metal.

Mirrorless cars -- or vehicles that drop old-school glass mirrors in favor of video screens -- have been proposed for years by stylists and engineers wanting sleeker looks as well as improved safety and fuel efficiency.

Last month, the proposals came closer to reality in Japan, which became one of the first markets allowing vehicles to use cameras instead of mirrors. The promise of mirrorless cars is sparking a rush of suppliers to the technology, including such entrants as Japan's Ichikoh Industries and Germany's Robert Bosch GmbH.

Japan's first-mover status could give Japanese companies a head start in tapping the trend.

Ichikoh, known mainly as a supplier of lighting and mirrors, sees big opportunities in mirrorless cars and is manufacturing its first product.

"Our job is to improve the visibility of the drive, with lighting and mirrors, but now also with cameras," Ichikoh CEO Ali Ordoobadi said in an interview at the company's world headquarters here south of Tokyo.

"There is a switch of technology, a kind of rupture," he said. "It's a really new segment with higher content, and that means higher revenue opportunities. This is the trend, and we have to be in front of the others."

Safe and efficient

It is not just about suppliers making more money. Camera-based monitors have advantages over traditional mirrors that help automakers tackle two top challenges: improving safety and boosting fuel economy.

For starters, cameras capture a wider angle of view and can see blind spots usually invisible with mirrors. They can also improve visibility by digitally compensating for glare, darkness or even rainy weather.

Camera-based systems typically weigh less than mirrors and reduce drag, helping lift fuel economy. They also allow for potentially sexier, streamlined body silhouettes.

Ichikoh's first product is an interior rearview mirror that has a double function: It operates as a regular mirror and with the flick of a switch, it transforms into a digital screen displaying a live video feed of the rear view.

Dubbed the Smart Rear View Monitor, it entered production June 28 for a customer that will use it in a vehicle that goes on sale in Japan in August.

Ichikoh identified the customer only as a Japanese carmaker with plans to use the video monitor in a midrange, low-volume nameplate.

Japanese regulators changed the rules to allow mirrorless cars beginning June 17.

"I can say we are the first on the OEM market," Ordoobadi said.

The pathway to mirrorless cars was cleared late last year when the United Nations' World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations approved the use of cameras that meet certain specifications in place of mirrors.

Tetsuya Saito, section chief on engineering policy at Japan's Road Transport Bureau, said Japan changed its rules in light of video quali-ty advancements. "The U.N. regulations have standards that clear- ly determine high-per-formance specs," Saito said. "Until now, camera monitors haven't been introduced to replace mirrors because they didn't have sufficient visibility."

Japan and the European Union were among the regions expected to revise local regulations this year to allow the new tech- nology.

The United States is seen adopting the standard in 2018, and China is expected to join the club in the coming years, Ichikoh said.

Volume may be low now but Ichikoh sees big growth, at least in Japan.

It predicts that by 2023, about 29 percent of the Japanese market -- or about 2.3 million vehicles -- will have video monitors as interior mirrors. At the same time, it forecasts that about 12 percent of the market -- about 900,000 vehicles -- will have jettisoned exterior sideview mirrors for cameras.

With its French partner Valeo SA, Ichikoh plans to introduce its monitor systems outside Japan, including the U.S. and Europe.

"We will not be looking just at the Japanese market," Ordoobadi said.

Ichikoh is hardly alone in readying the new technology. In June, rival Japanese mirror maker Murakami Corp. unveiled plans to develop video monitors in place of interior mirrors. Japan's Nikkan Kogyo newspaper said Murakami aims to start production around 2018.

The new technology also opens the door for others.

Germany's Bosch doesn't even make mirrors, but it senses an opportunity to use its expertise in electronics to enter a new segment. It is considering a rollout of mirrorless monitors over the next three years, says Bosch spokeswoman Barbara Zelenay. Bosch has developed a system for commercial trucks with interior displays mounted on the cabin's A-pillars.

"The technology is not the issue," Zelenay says. "It's up to the legislation. We don't make mirrors, but we could make the replacement for mirrors."

Continental AG is another supplier that has shown a prototype system, while Tesla Motors has petitioned U.S. regulators to allow the technology.

U.S. supplier Gentex Corp. also offers a monitor that switches from video to traditional mirror at the touch of a button. It debuted in the Cadillac CT6.

Video vs. reflection

Ichikoh's initial system uses a camera mounted at the rear of the car that feeds live video footage to a screen where the traditional rearview mirror is. It is also a hybrid system, offering a traditional mirror backup.

Even though Japan's rules allow mirrorless cars, Ordoobadi said carmakers want a gradual evolution, partly so customers can adjust.

Cost of the high-tech mirrors is one issue. But a test drive with Ichikoh's monitor highlighted other differences that could require adjustment by consumers.

In one use on a Toyota van, a 1.3-megapixel camera supplied by Panasonic Corp. provided a sweeping 160-degree view from the rear of the van. Visibility was impressive and clear, but some things were counterintuitive.

Drivers with traditional mirrors are used to moving their heads from side to side to get a better view of the rear of the vehicle. But with a rear-view camera, the image on the screen remains unchanged no matter how the driver changes the viewing angle.

The van camera also deftly eliminated blind spots behind the rear pillars. But in a traditional mirror, those pillars can also be reference points for objects and their spatial relationships to the vehicle. That is lost with a clear field of vision.

Finally, color is noticeably less vibrant than that of a mirror's reflection.

Going forward, Ichikoh plans to introduce camera-based monitors to replace side mirrors. The company envisions small screens in the right and left corners of the dash, about where air conditioner vents are usually placed. Some proposals have put the monitors on the A-pillars. Others ideas include using a video strip along the top edge of the windshield that captures rear and side views stitched together in a panorama.

Ichikoh gets about 20 percent of its global revenue from mirrors. Headlights, taillights and interior lighting make up the bulk of the rest.

It sees cameras as an opportunity to remarket itself as a supplier of around-vehicle vision systems that fuse lighting, mirrors and monitors.

"For Ichikoh, a company that already has the know-how of making mirrors, to switch gradually to this technology is an advantage. But it is also necessary," Ordoobadi said. "The trend is that mirrors are declining and cameras will be increasing. We have to adapt to this."

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