Your mirrors are one of the most important pieces of safety equipment on your truck. You already know you need to keep them clean, adjust them properly to reduce your blind spots, and stay alert.
Currently, side mirrors are legally required in the United States; but there are now trucks on the road that don't have them. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is experimentally allowing the use of a mirrorless camera system for five years (which started December 26, 2019).
So, how do these mirrorless systems work and will they ever replace traditional mirrors?
How does the Camera System Work?
The truck is fitted with two side-view camera arms, each of which contains two cameras, one giving a narrow view and the other a wide-angle view. Another camera provides a view of the front corner of the passenger side of the cab, a well-known blind spot.
Views from the cameras are transmitted to monitors placed on either side of the cab and in the top center (where a rear-view mirror is generally located on a passenger car). The central view is the "look down" camera. Otherwise, the display monitors are close to where mirrors would be, allowing a natural transition for drivers.
The camera arms are designed to fold into the truck body if struck and are probably less likely to break than mirrors.
What are the Advantages of the Camera System?
These new camera systems are, currently, a significant investment. However, they do have a number of advantages over traditional side mirrors.
- The camera arms are less bulky than mirrors, which results in an aerodynamic improvement that saves fuel.
- Camera lenses can be designed to be "hydrophobic," meaning that water is repelled from them quickly.
- The system gives a wider field of view, resulting in fewer blind spots. The cameras are also designed to follow the wheels of the trailer in a turn, making it much easier to see properly when turning right.
- Digital "mirrors" can be programmed to adjust the field of view for different driving conditions, such as a narrower field of view to see further behind the vehicle on fast highways, or a wider one in cities where there might be cyclists and pedestrians to worry about.
- Drivers have already stated that the digital cameras work much better than mirrors in reduced visibility, especially low light.
Overall, the new technology provides flexibility that traditional mirrors do not. As it develops it may be integrated into lane departure systems or allow for digital backup projection lines, effectively providing semi-truck backup camera capacity similar to that now standard on passenger cars.
Right now, the system is still very much in development, but it is quite likely that it will become more popular, especially given the likely ROI in terms of safety and, to a lesser extent, fuel consumption.
What are the Issues with Cameras Replacing Mirrors?
The biggest issue with the system is, of course, driver acceptance. Older drivers who have dealt with regular mirrors for years may be reluctant to try the new system, and some are concerned that the monitor displays may not be as adjustable for drivers who are unusually tall or short.
Some drivers did find that there was a learning curve. As the monitors are inside the cab, they are not quite in the same place as mirrors, and drivers testing the system found that they looked outside the cab where they expected to find mirrors. Adjustment was generally pretty fast. One driver testing the system found the central location of the "look down" mirror counter intuitive.
Manufacturers and vendors would do well to seek feedback from drivers to see if the system can be adjusted in ways that make them more comfortable, and to make sure that display panels can be positioned appropriately for different body types.
The biggest concern from drivers and fleet managers is what might happen if the system breaks. Mirrors, although highly vulnerable to damage, are easy to repair and replace and, of course, do not have attached software to crash. Older drivers tend to be more comfortable with simple, physical systems rather than modern electronics.
A good amount of redundancy has been built into the system. With multiple cameras on each side, if one camera fails then the driver should be able to rely on the other. As camera prices come down, it might be possible to add even more cameras to the arm, allowing for backup cameras to cut in. The camera arms are higher on the cab and less likely to be hit by other vehicles or objects than mirrors. All of this means that the system is likely to stay reliable, and the cameras can be designed to alert the driver to non-function (such as through a blue screen) rather than just having the view freeze.
Finally, another concern is different standards across manufacturers because there is no regulatory standard. Mirrors have generally converged on one good design that a driver can easily handle. When drivers switch to another cab, they can be sure that once they have adjusted the mirrors everything will work the same. With the camera systems, it is entirely possible that there will be things like different camera locations, different display locations, etc., which could introduce a learning curve. This is a concern that could be addressed with legislation; or it might be that the learning curve is not big enough to worry about.
Younger drivers, unsurprisingly, are more willing to try the system than seasoned ones. With the current shortage of new drivers, the system's safety improvements, while likely modest, might be used to help encourage new truck drivers to enter the trucking industry.
Are Cameras Going to Replace Mirrors Anytime Soon?
As of right now, the system is going to be an expensive optional extra, but if testing shows that it does improve safety it is likely to slowly become standard, if not mandatory. Fortunately, it doesn't appear to require a lot of additional training to use, and manufacturers are being careful to introduce redundancies to ensure it works.
It also opens the door to proper tractor trailer backup camera functionality and additional safety features that could be highly useful to drivers moving forward (or, most importantly, in reverse).