August 23, 2006 Thermal Imaging has long been used by the military to see in the dark in mission-critical situations, so it’s not surprising that it is being used in BMW’s new Night Vision driver assistance system. In using thermal imaging as the basis for the system, BMW engineers have opted for an approach that places greater focus on detecting people and animals at danger. Objects which radiate heat are shown particularly bright and are therefore drawn to the attention of the driver. In urban areas, lighting is usually sufficient for drivers to recognise dangers with the naked eye, but BMW Night Vision is most effective on country roads where pedestrians, cyclists and animals can be detected earlier. The system also has advantages on unlit streets or dark courtyards and poorly lit car parks. Australian accident statistics show that 45 per cent of fatal road accidents occur at night, even though more than two thirds of all driving is done during the day, so the new system addresses a serious issue - driving at night represents a significant potential danger. The Night Vision system is now available as an option in the BMW 7 Series, 5 Series and 6 Series. The thermal imaging camera covers a range of up to 300 metres or almost 1,000 feet ahead of the car, almost twice as far as near infrared systems on the Mercedes S Class and the Lexus LX470. Great image gallery with video.
A thermal imaging camera detects human beings, animals and objects in front of the car before they become visible to the human eye in the headlights. The image generated by the system is transmitted to the central Control Display within the car presenting objects detected with increasing brightness as a function of the heat detected by the camera – and therefore making human beings and animals particularly conspicuous. A video of the system can be seen here.
The thermal imaging camera covers a range of up to 300 metres or almost 1,000 feet ahead of the car. BMW Night Vision therefore offers the driver particular benefits when driving over land, down narrow lanes, through gateways leading into courtyards, and into dark underground garages, significantly enhancing driving safety at night. By comparison the near infrared systems of the Mercedes S Class and the Lexus LX470 offer a 150-200 metre viewing distance.
With BMW Night Vision and High-Beam Assist, which switches the high beam on and off automatically after activation via the stalk on the steering column in the 3, 5, 6, and 7 Series, BMW is making yet a further contribution to the enhancement of traffic safety by means of innovations in technology. Both systems assist the driver in the dark, in a situation that requires a high level of concentration. In this way BMW Night Vision and the High-Beam Assist also offer a considerable improvement of motoring comfort.
In choosing in favour of far infra-red technology (FIR), BMW engineers conducted comparative studies and reviewed independent scientific examinations. Their conclusion was that FIR offers the following benefits:
Reduction to the essential: Far infra-red technology uses a thermal imaging camera highlighting in particular persons, animals and objects radiating higher temperatures. FIR intentionally does not present a detailed image of the respective traffic situation, which would only delay the recognition of a human being within the overall image. In other words, insignificant details are cancelled out and do not distract the driver.
FIR enables the driver "to look further": Covering a range of approximately 300 metres or almost 1,000 feet, FIR "looks" about twice as far as other systems. Hence, the driver is informed earlier on possible hazards – up to 5 seconds earlier at a speed of 100 km/h.
FIR cannot be "dazzled": FIR cannot be dazzled by the headlights of oncoming traffic, by traffic lights, road lights and highly reflective surfaces such as traffic signs. And vehicles with FIR technology do not dazzle each other.
Over and above the advantages offered by the FIR principle from the start, BMW has enhanced this technology by adding further functions: The image presented follows the road in a panning process and distant objects can be shown larger as a function of speed (zooming).
BMW Night Vision presents a high-contrast black-and-white night image to the driver on the Control Display in the middle of the instrument panel. Benefiting from FIR technology, the driver only has to briefly check the Display in order to recognise a hazard. So using BMW Night Vision is comparable to looking into the interior mirror in the car.
Examining the new system, BMW also considered the option to present the image in the driver's primary field of vision, for example in the Head-Up Display or in the instrument cluster, but this option was rejected for ergonomic reasons. Tests have shown that the combination of real-life and virtual images irritates the driver and is not the best solution.
The BMW Night Vision option costs around US$2500 in America.