Picture this: Cars with cameras, projectors, and 3D safety tech

DETROIT— "Seeing and being seen" took on a whole new meaning at the 2013 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). I spied production and concept cars with serious imaging technology, and they spied me right back.

Cars with embedded cameras and displays are nothing new. Rear-view backup cameras have been around for a while, and several cars have some sort of display nestled into the dash. However, the next generation of imaging devices in cars will take on far more complex and active roles in the driving experience.

The car is the image

Let’s start with the craziest one, Toyota’s Fun-Vii. Unveiled a little over a year ago, this car is an inside-and-out moving display. A smartphone app lets you alter its exterior and interior looks at will.

Melissa Riofrio
The Fun-Vii is a rolling display, inside and out. You can change the surface image or even ‘write’on the display using a smartphone app.

At NAIAS, Toyota displayed a huge touchscreen running an app for applying different images to the skin. You could “write” on the car by tracing on the touchscreen. While highly unlikely ever to come to market, it’s a great excuse for Toyota to mess around with imaging technologies and see what might actually work in a real car.

Smart Forstars has built-in projector

More feasible, if only slightly less crazy, is the projector built into the hood of the Smart Forstars concept car.

Smart
The Smart Forstars concept has a projector built into its hood.

Part of the concept is that the car will be able to stream video from your smartphone to the forward-facing projector, which displays images on any vertical, flat surface in front of the car. A promotional video shows the car wheeling into an supermodern loft to entertain a group of urban hipsters. If this car ever does come to market, it will give the 20th-century phenomenon of drive-in movies a new-generation lease on life.

Smart
The Smart Forstars concept car can stream videos from a smartphone and project it onto walls and other vertical, flat surfaces.

The Smart Forstars also offers a surprising—and somewhat gratuitous—twist on the traditional rearview mirror. Instead of a trusty hanging piece of glass, the Forstars has a smartphone dock in the upper part of the windshield. You put your smartphone in the dock, and it streams video from a built-in rear camera. A Smart spokesperson at the booth said you didn’t have to keep the phone in the dock all the time for it to work. My question is: how would constant streaming during driving affect battery life, and would I really want a power cord dangling from the docked phone to some connector on the dashboard? But this is a concept car, so there isn’t necessarily an answer.

The camera as backseat driver (in front)

Volvo
The Volvo City Safety system uses a windshield camera and laser to detect what’s around you while you drive.

While projector-equipped cars and rolling digital billboards are fun to look at, there are also more-practical uses for in-car imaging devices that are bound to end up in many more cars soon. There’s no smartphone rearview device in new Mercedes E-Class and Volvo cars, but built into the windshield above their traditional mirrors is a cluster of detection devices. This cluster is the backseat driver moved to the front, watching out for hazards and things that sneak up on you as you drive.

Volvo
The Volvo V40 (available in Europe) tracks and alerts you to nearby pedestrians.

A camera teamed with a laser form the basis for Volvo’s City Safety system, designed to avoid auto accidents in low-speed urban environments. In Volvo cars equipped with the company's Technology Package, a front-grille radar is added to the team to detect pedestrians, look ahead for road signs, and keep you from straying from your lane.

One camera isn’t enough for Mercedes-Benz’s Intelligent Drive system. Its two front cameras, angled at 45 degrees, can see in three dimensions at a distance of up to 55 yards in front of the vehicle. The cameras feed what they see into the Intelligent Drive system, sorting out what looks like a pedestrian or a vehicle, for example.

Melissa Riofrio
The new Mercedes-Benz E-Class cars have two front cameras angled at 45 degrees for a 3D view of up to 55 yards ahead.

Next-gen distractions?

These next-generation imaging technologies are an intriguing part of new advances in car technology, and the practical, safety-minded systems that help you see what’s going on around your car are far more likely to see mainstream adoption. While an inside-out display or a streaming smartphone rear-view mirror is a cool showpiece to see at a car show, drivers will still need to keep their eyes on the road—well, until self-driving cars become commonplace, that is.

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