Driving in the Dark

Despite sounding like something from a futuristic sci-fi film, automotive night vision has been around for almost fifteen years. Because these systems can only be found on high-end models (with a steep additional cost), most ordinary drivers never see one. So is it worth buying and installing such a device? Is it safe? And, most importantly, does it look like something from a bad ass Batman movie?


The first automotive night vision system appeared on the Cadillac Deville in 2000. It consisted of a barely comprehensible green and black blob projected onto the windshield. Needless to say, it was not a huge hit. But the relentless sprint of technology has made systems today more impressive, although definitely not as show-stopping as you would like them to be!

Night vision systems can either be active or passive. So here’s the science bit! Active night vision means the car projects infrared light onto the road. Unless you happen to be a boa constrictor or a mosquito, this light will be totally invisible to you, but it’s picked up by a camera on the vehicle. Passive night vision is the type seen in police helicopters on TV car chase shows. This means the system “sees” the thermal radiation emitted by objects with a thermographic camera.

Each system has its pro’s and con’s. Active night vision provides a much crisper image, but there’s lower contrast for animals or, more importantly, pedestrians. It’s also beaten by heavy fog or rain. Passive night vision has a longer range (up to three-hundred yards) and living objects glow like beacons on the screen. But because it relies on heat, the system works poorly in warmer weather conditions. In the picture below you can see a “hot” person and the engines in, and the tires on, the newly parked cars.

Looking at a night vision screen is like peering into an alien world. A layer of reality that’s not normally available to you is suddenly revealed. Fumes escaping from exhaust pipes can be seen drifting into the atmosphere and ghostly white boxes (cars) cruise across the screen. All the otherworldly distractions surely cannot improve your driving.

There are currently 3 manufacturers producing models with night vision. These are the predictably high-end Audi, BMW, and Mercedes. In tests, the system available in the Audi A6, A7, and A8 models is highly acclaimed. This is not because it has the clearest picture or the most impressive technology. It’s because the Audi excels at what night vision is essentially for, i.e. spotting stray pedestrians. Any person foolish or drunk enough to stumble into the road is highlighted in a bright yellow box from up to one-hundred-fifty yards away. This gives you enough time to brake and possibly curse at them from your window, which is a much better option than going for roadkill like a hedgehog!

The BMW system is poor in comparison. Night vision is available on the 5, 6, and 7 series but you might as well not bother. The placement of the screens within the car is totally baffling. Drivers are almost forced to divert their line of sight from the road which is a major safety failure. The picture below shows the 7 series.


If straining your neck to see the night vision screen isn’t unsafe enough, the pedestrian recognition system definitely is! BMW assures you that pedestrians will appear with a “slight yellow hue”. Alas, this hue is so slight that you have to really squint to see it. Whilst you’re looking sideways at the screen doubting your color vision, the poor pedestrian is likely to end up flattened. This is an unforgivable design oversight in what’s supposedly a safety feature!

If you want a KnightRider-esque screen to impress your friends then the Mercedes is for you. Available on the CL, CLS, E, and S-class models, this is the only system that uses active night vision. The images it produces are crisp, clear and will definitely generate murmurs of approval. It’s more like watching a black and white TV than looking at a lava lamp in the dark which is a huge plus! The picture below shows the S-class technology.


One of the minus points for the Mercedes is that the technology works against itself when it comes to spotting pedestrians. Everything on the screen appears in the same hue, so humans and animals do not glow up intensely. With all of the other details you can see, this means that pedestrians can almost melt into the background. Thankfully Mercedes has separate pedestrian recognition technology and white brackets appear around people from one-hundred yards away.

Is it worth paying thousands of dollars extra for these systems? Probably not. Essentially night vision technology is a tool used by the manufacturers to prove how cutting edge they are. As for safety, night vision is no substitute for the old fashioned windshield and eyeball coordination!

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