New wide-angle mirror could eliminate blind spots in cars

Objects in this mirror are closer than they appear, but they look just fine.

A mathematics professor from Drexel University has been granted a patent for a wide-angle mirror design that minimizes distortion to previously unseen levels, and could theoretically eliminate the blind spots that have been a bugaboo of automotive design since Ray Harroun installed the first rearview mirror on his Marmon race car for the 1911 Indy 500.

Based on research that began when he was developing optics for soccer-playing robots, Dr. R. Andrew Hicks tells that he developed an algorithm that reinvents the shape of a wide-angle mirror from a simple spherical section of to a more complex, freeform one that better directs the light coming in from different angles toward the viewer. The result is mirror that offers a 45-degree field of view, compared to 17-degrees for the flat mirrors found on the driver's side of cars in the United States today.

The invention is potentially an inexpensive alternative to the electronic blind spot warning systems automakers have been rolling out in recent years, which use cameras or radars to monitor the sides of a vehicle outside of the field of view of mirrors for obstacles and alert the driver with lights or sounds if the car is steered toward an occupied space.

Hicks has discussed the mirror with several automakers, but there’s a big hurdle keeping them from ever using it on one of their cars: Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 111. This is the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration rule established in 1967 that governs the design of side view mirrors and mandates that the one on the driver’s side must be perfectly flat with 1:1 reflection, while the allowable curvature of the passenger side mirror is strictly defined. Without a rewrite of the regulation, it’s unlikely that Hick’s mirror could be offered as a standard feature in its current form.

Nevertheless, the invention could one day be used to see much farther than the next lane. Hicks says the technology could be incorporated into future space telescopes which rely on mirrors to provide a wide field of view.

Objects viewed through those may also be closer than they appear, but probably not enough to make much of a difference.