Side mirror
Run-of-the-mill side mirror. Click image to enlarge

Article and Photos by Justin Pritchard

Not too, too long ago, after what seemed like 87 weeks of waiting, my new cell-phone arrived in the mail. It was to be my first cell-phone with a built-in camera.

“YAY!!!!” I thought. “Now I can take pictures of cars and friends and activities and all of the cool stuff I see and do and need to photograph on a daily basis! What a fantastic time to be alive!”

What a massive disappointment. It had a camera, all right. It took photos, too. Thing is, hook the images up to a PC and blow them up any larger than a postage stamp, and you were on a one-way trip to fuzzy-pixel land.

I think I took about three photos with this stupid thing and got over it.

Today, I have a different cell phone, with two cameras on it. One on the front for taking selfies and snap-chats, and a bigger one on the back with enough megapixels to make me wonder if I really need to lug my big SLR around. It’s that good. And all of that in a device that’ll fit in my pocket. And make phone calls. And play tuneage. And surf the web for videos of cars doing epic burnouts that other people have shot with their cell phones, too.

The point? Cameras have gotten a lot better, a lot more common and a lot cheaper in just a few years. Automakers have picked this up, of course – and they’re using these new, cheap, and powerful cameras in more innovative ways than ever. Here’s a closer look at some ways how.

A Do-It-All Back-up Camera: Did you know that on some Nissan models, the back-up camera system has numerous added responsibilities? In addition to displaying a real-time image of the area behind the vehicle reversing, the wide-angle camera watches the area at the rear of your vehicle for signs of trouble, even while you’re driving.

“Guys, check this out,” said someone at Nissan when they were inventing this system. “Forget using radar like a sucker – let’s use the freaking back-up cam! Boom!”

Active Driving Aids
Camera-driven driver aids. Click image to enlarge

Since the rearview cam can see the road markings, it powers the Lane Departure Warning System, which alerts drivers if they’re accidentally on their way out of their lane. The backup camera can also see the vehicle’s blind-spots, and powers the Blind Spot Warning System to tell drivers if they’re about to side-swipe a Corolla when changing lanes. Nissan’s even developed a cleaning system that pipes a single drop of washer fluid onto the camera lens and blasts it clean with a whiff of compressed air, so there’s always a good view.

Nissan’s not the only one tapping into advanced backup-camera functionality. The new Mercedes S-Class can see out of its back-up camera to determine if it’s about to be rear-ended by another vehicle. If it is, the brakes are pre-locked, helping minimize subsequent collisions.

Ford, further, offers police personnel a set of eyes in the back of their head while they’re parked for surveillance or paperwork. On interceptor models, the back-up cam can watch the area behind the vehicle, and warn the officer if someone’s approaching from the rear.

LaneWatch Camera: Honda’s been sticking small cameras on the passenger-side rearview mirrors of more models than ever lately to power their new Lane Watch safety system. Signal right, and the camera displays a wide angle video down the side of your car on the central display screen.  It’s even got digital measuring lines, so you can gauge the distance between you and the vehicle you’re about to pull in front of when changing lanes. The camera can be activated by pressing a button on the end of the turn-signal lever, too.

Your writer is the son of an avid cyclist who frequently complains of being cut off by cars turning right, and this system could enhance safety for dad and his pals. From the driver’s seat, added confidence results from the ability to triple-check your blind-spot via the wide-angle camera, and to give drivers a better sense of what’s going on near their ride.

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