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More cameras are packed into cars

April 7, 2015

As if cars didn't already get enough attention, automakers are finding more ways to give them starring roles by packing them with more video cameras.

And just as auto marketers boasted in past years about the number of cupholders or air bags in their models, marketers have now turned their attention to cameras.

At last week's press preview for the New York Auto Show, Jaguar officials noted that the new XF sedan has six -- five that give a 360-degree view outside the car and one pointing forward to perform number of safety functions. Infiniti's Q50 has six, too.

Even mainstream models are being packed with them -- such as Ford's F-150 pickup, which has up to five and could have double that in coming years.

"That's where our industry is going -- the sky is the limit," says Jennifer Shaw, driver assistance electronics supervisor for Ford.

The cameras allow cars to read speed signs and stay in the lane. Some record trips for playback later. Automakers are experimenting with using them in place of rear-view mirrors, although current U.S. law won't allow it yet. They will play a bigger role, too, in the race for the self-driving car.

The camera craze is driven in part by the government. A regulation phasing in starting next year requires all new vehicles to have rear-backup cameras. Plus, it's just good business since safety sells. An survey last October found 84% of the 1,033 responding said it's more important to have a car stocked with the latest safety tech than entertainment features. Also, digital cameras have gotten cheaper.

"They have become a commodity and a necessity," says Filip Brabec, Audi's director of product management. "We started seeing a lot more uses for these cameras and all of a sudden, one thing leads to another."

Nvidia, a company that makes computers and chips for cars, recently demonstrated a system that can handle inputs from 12 cameras. Multiple cameras cover all sides of the car, provide a long-range view from the front and monitor the rear view, says Danny Shapiro, Nvidia's senior director for automotive. And one is aimed directly at the driver to detect drowsiness.

Cameras are growing more sophisticated. Ford's Edge crossover has a front camera that can wash mud or road grime off its lens. The new Ford Explorer will have camera washers both front and back. Edge and F-150 cameras offer a 180-degree view to the rear to better see if cross traffic is coming while backing out of a space in a parking lot.

The cameras and processors in the next generation will be even more sophisticated -- able to distinguish between, for instance, a police car and taxicab. "There's a lot going on in these cameras," Ford's Shaw says.
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