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BMW night vision system uses thermal imaging to spot danger

BMW night vision system uses thermal imaging to spot danger

Posting in Technology

BMW's flagship 7-Series sedan is perennially a technological tour de force, but a new thermal imaging night vision system might just trump the rest of the car's innovation.

BMW's flagship 7-Series sedan is perennially a technological tour de force, but a new thermal imaging night vision system might just trump the rest of the car's innovation.

Developed by the Swedish-based Autoliv Electronics, BMW's new Night Vision with Pedestrian Detection system that uses the same technology that firefighters use to find victims in burning buildings to distinguish between animals and humans on the road.

The passive system uses "far-infrared" technology to scan for heat, offering considerable depth (1,000 feet, or twice the distance of headlights) and clarity, even when it's raining.

(By comparison, Mercedes-Benz offers a similar system, but uses a less-exacting "near-infrared" system that projects infrared light on the road. Cadillac -- in the 2000 Deville sedan -- and Lexus -- on the 2006 LS460 -- also offered similar systems, but dropped them because few customers bought them.)

The $2,600 option works in conjunction with the 7-Series' adaptive headlights, which follow the driver's steering input to "see" around turns. The night vision system works in both rural and urban driving conditions, where it scales the infrared sensing distance based on the speed of the vehicle.

So how's it work? A far-infrared camera in the grille, just over an inch in diameter, senses the temperature of everything in front of the vehicle. A computer then converts the data into an image that appears on the navigation display built into the dashboard. Warmer objects (a pedestrian, a horse) appear white; cooler objects (parked cars, detritus) appear black.

When the car exceeds 25 mph, the system scans specifically for pedestrians by scanning the road up to 100 yards ahead of the vehicle. Pedestrians appear with a yellow tint.

Monitoring your speed and trajectory, the system will also warn you if you're on a collision course.

The only catch, besides the price? The system may give off false warnings. BMW says it's working on its algorithms to eliminate false positives.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure