- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Night vision has become indispensable for our military. It allows U.S. forces to operate at night with a tool that penetrates blackness because it uses infrared technology cameras that don’t see optically. Infrared cameras “see” heat emanating from people or vehicles that may be hundreds of feet away. Its use for driving, however, has been slow to take hold.

Cadillac introduced night vision in its model year 2000 DeVille. The technology didn’t exactly light up the brand’s balance sheet. Priced at $2,200, the option was ignored by all but a relative handful of early technology adopters.

About 10,500 customers purchased night vision in the first two years it was available, says Kevin Smith, a Cadillac spokesman. But night vision sales dipped to 800 units in 2004. “Only a couple of hundred motorists bought night vision in 2005,” Mr. Smith says.

Despite the fact that night vision was also made available on some Hummers, the numbers were still too paltry for GM to see profit at the end of the night-vision tunnel. So when the DeVille went away at the end of the 2005 model year, GM blacked out night vision.

“Our customers were not voting with their wallets,” Mr. Smith says. “We may have brought it out too early, but it’s a technology we’ll keep our eye on,” he says. “If there’s sufficient demand, we can always bring it back.”

Lexus introduced a night-vision system in 2004 on the LX 470 as a $2,200 option. The Lexus system, like Cadillac’s, is based on near-infrared technology. It gives drivers as much as four times the range of low beams on a display on the lower section of the windshield. The picture resembles a black-and-white TV image.

The Japanese luxury brand was the only one to offer night vision last year — and only on one model. LX 470 buyers are more enthusiastic about night vision than were Cadillac or Hummer owners. About 17 percent of LX 470 buyers add night vision.

BMW and Mercedes-Benz think this is a fortuitous moment to introduce night vision on 2007 models. The German companies sell to buyers who want the most technologically advanced innovations. Night vision qualifies and becomes available this spring in BMW and Mercedes-Benz cars.

Mercedes-Benz calls its system Night View Assist. It’s included in an optional package, or $1,775 as a stand-alone option in the 2007 S550, S600 and S65. The Mercedes-Benz night vision is also a near-infrared system that consists of two infrared headlamps beamed down the road. It significantly lengthens the driver’s view on low beam. The resulting black-and-white image is displayed on the speedometer screen in the instrument panel.

The high-resolution 8-inch display takes over the speedometer panel when infrared images are transmitted. To take the place of the speedometer, Mercedes-Benz engineers display a horizontal bar graph at the bottom of the screen to indicate how fast you’re going.

Infrared (IR) light is invisible to the human eye so it can’t blind oncoming drivers despite the superior vision it provides. The IR camera detects heat emanating from pedestrians, animals or other vehicles and displays these images. Mercedes-Benz engineers even provide green indicator arrows in the display to warn of objects ahead of you.

BMW offers night vision in its 5 Series sedan and sports wagon. It’s also available as an option in the 6 Series convertible and coupe. BMW says its night-vision system allows the driver to see potential obstacles in the road up to five seconds quicker when the car is going at 62.5 mph.

BMW uses a totally different far-infrared system. The company’s engineers claim that far-IR is the most efficient system for spotting people, animals or other objects at night.

Its night-vision system pans the road in front of the car and has a zoomlike feature to make objects that are farther away look bigger the faster you are traveling.

BMW says that its night vision’s range is almost 1,000 feet — about twice as far as that of competitive systems. The image captured by the IR cameras is displayed in the middle of the instrument panel.

Although night vision is available only in a few luxury vehicles, it looks like infrared technology will become a feature in less expensive models in the near future. Many of the affordable high-tech features in mid- and low-price cars originally were only available in luxury models.

Night vision is on the same trajectory and within a few years should be in many more vehicles.

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