Driving at night is dangerous. The reasons are obvious: poor vision on dark highways, obstacles that are recognized too late, wrong judgement of speed, driving into oncoming headlights -and all of this possibly exacerbated by wet, reflecting road surfaces. Fortunately, there is a technology solution coming our way that can make these driving conditions less difficult. Let’s take a look.
Courtesy of the NTSB, there are plenty of statistics involving night driving; here are a few of the most revealing ones. In 2015, in the United States, there were just over 20,000 fatal crashes at night. What is striking is that approximately 91 percent of these nighttime accidents occurred on dark roads and just 9 percent occur on roads with streetlights. And, keep in mind, this is just fatalities; approximately 20 times that number of people were injured non-fatally in these accidents. Clearly, a “night vision” solution of some sort could save an awful lot of pain and suffering.
Seeing in The Dark:
Human eyes are sensitive detectors that evolved to detect visible light. However, there are other forms of light that we cannot see. At one end of the spectrum, we cannot see ultraviolet light, while at the other end our eyes cannot see infrared light. Let’s take a closer look at the later radiation source: 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. Even objects that we think of as being very cold, such as an iceburg, emit infrared radiation. Although our eyes cannot see infrared radiation, we can feel it. The heat we feel from a fire, a radiator, or from the sun is the sensation that infrared radiation creates.
Now that we know what infrared radiation is, we can look at devices that make it visible to the human eye. The first thing we need is an electronic infrared detector that can “see” the infrared profile of warm objects. The signal from this detector is then fed into a processing chip that converts the infrared image into an image that humans can see; typically, on an LCD screen. No doubt you have seen the ghostly figures that one can see on military night vision goggles on TV.
Several car manufacturers are announcing the availability of night vision systems in their high-end models but some forward-thinking manufacturers are offering them in their mid-tier models. According to Metro Kia Atlanta, a local Kia dealer in Cartersville, GA, the 2017 Kia Sportage incorporates a night vision feature that can be viewed on their 8” UVO Infotainment system.
Another company that has been installing night vision systems in their cars already is BMW. At the end of 2005, their “Night Vision” system was an option on the flagship BMW 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 at all in total darkness. With their a thermal imaging system, people can be detected at a range of about 300m. This is much further than with ordinary headlights.
As the night vision technology becomes more commonly available, we can expect to see it on more and more models. One would hope that this will mean that less accidents and deaths occur due to poor sight conditions while driving.