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Two categories of night view systems
Night Vision... or visions

Lexus Night View was available as an option for the LX470 since model year 2003. It uses near-infrared technology to give the driver illuminated images of what is ahead of the vehicle out to a distance of nearly 500 feet. Night View projects near-infrared beams from two lamps in the lower grille. The near-infrared light reflects from objects ahead back to a Charged Coupled Device (CCD) camera mounted inside at the top of the windshield. A dedicated computer processes the resulting natural-looking images, which are then projected onto a section of the windshield in the driver's field of vision..

17th August 2005.

With only a few weeks remaining before the beginning of the new September-to-July  "automotive season" (or 2005-2006 academic year if you prefer), we all anticipate the too many new needs that will face us. Real needs as well as marketing-made ones.

Well, one of the new "needs" which we shall start hearing about more and more regularly, is the night vision system which will give us sooner or later (depending on the pocket size), as its name suggests, better vision at night, thanks to the infrared technology.

One thing is sure: it will definitely become one of the most important life saving devices, for drivers, passengers and especially, for the otherwise-unseen pedestrians.

Night vision technology is not new. It has been widely exploited in defense and security applications, amongst many others, just like the infrared has been even in our pockets for many years, in the first generation of remote controls (before changing to the ultrasound which ended the "aiming" game).

However, the novelty is in the beginning of the widespread availability of night vision systems in our cars, today in a few luxury models, then in cheaper models in the not-so-distant future. Remember how yesterday's optional ABS, ESP, BA... have become today standard equipment in a growing number of models?

The first car-dedicated Night Vision system was optionally offered with the Cadillac DeVille in 2000 (worth US$2,250 before GM discontinued it last year). Lexus introduced its night view system in the LX470 SUV since 2003 (worth US$2,200 for MY2006), then Honda in its new generation Legend (in Japan since end 2004, worth over five thousand US dollars there), and then BMW and Mercedes-Benz systems which will be launched in the 7 Series and the new generation S-Class by year's end.

In the following hyperlinked pages, you can read about some of these new night vision systems. But before clicking, it might me a good idea to just have a look at their two main categories, in order to situate each one in its context.

In a nutshell, there are now two main night vision categories:

Passive infrared, called as well Far InfraRed (FIR) systems, rely on sensors which capture the thermal energy (heat) emitted from living bodies and warm objects to convert it (thermal imaging) into a negative-like image displayed either on a monitor, or in a head-up display. You find in this category, in different configurations with varying parameters and devices, Cadillac's original system and the more advanced and newer ones developed later for Honda and BMW.

Active infrared, or Near InfraRed (NIR) systems do not rely on the heat radiation from warm bodies/objects, but rather on infrared light beams projected from specific bulbs, in front of the car, with a special camera fitted aboard to capture the image of the infrared lit zone, camera which transmits its data to an image processor which will convert it into a black-and-white image on a monitor or head-up display. You find in this category, with technical differences as well, the systems used Lexus (since 2003, see upper photo) and soon by Mercedes-Benz in the new generation S-Class.

Which is better? Neither technology seems bound to replace the other, at least in the near future, since each one can flex its own fortes.

The passive infrared (or FIR) for instance can help identify human and animal bodies better, since it is not "bothered" by infrared lights. It senses heat, which is emitted by the main preoccupation of a safety device supposed to protect primarily life: pedestrians, then animals (some can be dangerous in an accident).

The Far Infrared (passive) range can reach currently up to 300 meters (in the new BMW system for instance), which is significantly longer than the NIR (active infrared) systems, like the new Mercedes-Benz which reaches up to 210 meters (according to manufacturers figures).

On the other hand, adepts of the active, or NIR system argue that their infrared light beams provide at night, with the normal light of the vehicle's low beam, a visibility which could be compared with the high beams, but without dazzling the oncoming traffic, since their infrared emitted beams are not detected by the human eyes of the oncoming drivers who only see the low beams, while the driver of the active infrared equipped car will see his/her normal low beam lights and the image of the further area covered by the infrared beams (on the screen or the head-up display, depending on models).

Normally, active systems (NIR) should not be prone to dazzling form oncoming infrared-equipped vehicles. But once these systems become widespread (when midsize to small cars get them), chances are these systems will "meet" and exchange their infrared beams far more regularily. It is precisely for similar reasons that some military applications prefer passive infrared since it does not emit any infrared light susceptible of being caught by another equipment (the enemy in the latter case).

So, if the filtering does not operate really hermetically, at least in some less efficient systems, the risk could become the transfer of the dazzling from the human eyes to the night vision screens, with the resulting dilution of the pedestrian image in the middle of the whole infrared beams festival.

...That is unless infrared filters prove fully efficient, or if both FIR and NIR receptors are mounted in the future, to be alternatively and automatically activated or deactivated, depending on the oncoming visible lights and invisible infrared beams, just like the other new BMW High-Beam Assist system does by automatically switching between bi-xenon low and high beam. In that case, FIR and NIR could be alternatively and automatically activated or deactivated, depending on the oncoming beams specter.

In all cases, these technologies are just emerging in the automotive markets, and many enhancements will follow, especially with their gradual widespread.

So, let's just have a look at those available today (or in few months). To read more about the differences between these systems, you can see the presentations of BMW, Siemens (supplies the BMW system, while it makes both FIR and NIR systems), Mercedes-Benz and Automotive Lighting (supplied the new S-Class night view system)..

Related Topics:
Two main categories of night view systems, each with its own fortes

Night Vision: Cadillac to Lexus, Honda, BMW & Mercedes-Benz

Honda Legend (Japan) Intelligent Night Vision System

Siemens combines head-up display with Night Vision

BMW's FIR Night Vision system for the 7-Series

Night Vision in the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Automotive Lighting equips the new S-Class

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