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BMW Night Vision Technology

A tunnel of white light guides you through murky midnight curves and turns. The darkness replacing the warm sunshine has become a black spectre whose otherworldly fingers wrap themselves around the edges of your vision. White exhaust gases snake toward a shadowed sky, fumes normally unseen to the naked eye. Low-hanging differentials on pickup trucks smile at you in the dark, like glowing jack-o-lanterns on Halloween, while animals and humans alike wander through the peripherals of your vision emanating a divine glow. You are watching life through the simplified and artificial world of a video game. Or, BMW’s Night Vision technology has provided you with a state of perception previously reserved for superheroes and military agents looking through specialized binoculars.

The number of incidents and fatal accidents that occur after dark is a striking statistic, with nearly 70% of all driving fatalities occurring after sunset, once our vision is no longer at its prime. BMW has recognized this as a serious problem and implemented an extra security system in its higher-end 7-series, 6-series and 5-series models. BMW’s Night Vision with Dynamic Light Spot is a revolutionary system designed to shed light on nighttime driving and make our shady streets a safer place to roam when nocturnal excursions are unavoidable.

In 2005, BMW borrowed a thermal imaging system from the military, refined it and released it in its high-end 7-series vehicles as a nighttime driving security measure. They would soon follow it up in other models.

BMW’s Night Vision uses a thermographic camera integrated into the grille of the vehicle to pick up infrared radiation being emitted by living obstacles that shouldn’t be left in the dark to motorists, namely people and animals. The camera transmits a black and white image to the vehicle’s navigation display, showing us what wouldn’t normally be visible to the naked human eye. Essentially, these images are the heat signature of the person or animal being detected. Hot items appear on the screen as radiating a white glow, while cold items are displayed in black. The distinction between the two allows drivers to easily assess any obstruction in the road. In the event of an impending collision, a warning is shown on the screen and a blinking red symbol is displayed. An acoustic warning is also heard, and the brakes are primed for optimum responsiveness.

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How Does it Work?

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Night Vision’s thermal imaging camera can detect people at a distance of 300 meters. According to BMW, a 2.3 x 2.3 meter object can be detected at a distance of 800 meters away. At a speed of 100 km/h, this system provides a gain of about 5 seconds, giving the driver of the vehicle that much more time to avert a collision.

The second part to this system has been dubbed BMW’s Dynamic Light Spot. Fairly self-explanatory, this function works with the infrared camera system to shine a spotlight-like light on living objects that cross its path. It utilizes light generated from the vehicle’s fog lamp housing to selectively illuminate obstructions in the road.

Night vision systems on today’s market come with two different available systems. BMW uses Far Infrared (FIR) or Passive Infrared. Other automakers have chosen the Near Infrared (NIR), or Active Infrared system.

FIR passively detects differences in heat, or infrared radiation emitted by objects, animals and human beings without needing a separate light source to do so. The NIR system, on the other hand, projects infrared radiation into the area in front of the vehicle. This radiation is then reflected by objects in the road and converted into an image that is displayed on a screen inside the vehicle. Since the system requires a secondary light source, this is often incorporated into the headlights.

FIR vs NIR

The FIR system is earning praise as being better suited to the use in vehicles for the detection of people and other objects. It is known to detect objects at a longer range, and it contains less components than the NIR system, making it less susceptible to breakdowns. The FIR system also doesn’t pick up light from headlights in oncoming traffic, which can cause obvious problems with the NIR system that relies on the detection of infrared light to function. The NIR system also gives the driver a complete image of the road, including obstructions and road marks, which can make for a messier screen and delay the detection of potential hazards. The FIR system, which by default only detects objects that project a heat signature, has a cleaner and faster detection time.

THE FUTURE OF NIGHT VISION

BMW’s Night Vision system received its most recent update in 2013. This update resulted in clearer images and a stronger ability to highlight animals and pedestrians. The system is already equipped to not only display warnings on the central control display of the dash of the vehicle, but it is available with the option to also display them on BMW’s Head-up Display. This projects an image onto the windshield of the vehicle, eliminating the hazard of having to take one’s eyes off the road. Even so, BMW concedes that there is always room for improvement. Their focus right now is image quality, but there are also whispers floating about regarding the possible future implementation of a software that would be able to detect critical situations within the general traffic environment.

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