High-tech rearview mirror maker watching federal regulations that could boost bottom-line

Feb 28, 2011

When you think high-tech you probably don’t think about car mirrors. But now you can use your car rearview mirror to open your garage door, see how cold it is outside and call your mom. One of the nation’s leading car mirror manufacturers is Zeeland-Michigan-based Gentex Corporation. New federal safety regulations set to be finalized soon would significantly boost the company’s business.

Gentex designs and builds rearview mirrors with embedded video display; sort of like a TV with picture in picture. The built in screen displays the picture from a tiny camera mounted on the back of a vehicle.  

Gentex Product Marketing Director Craig Piersma says the display inside the mirror is about three to three-and-a-half-inches diagonally.

“It’s a back-lit LED display so it’s very high resolution and it’s very high brightness. Behind those displays are 80 individual white LEDs that provide the backlighting illumination.”

Gentex has years of experience putting high tech features into low tech mirrors.  It’s been making rearview mirrors that automatically dim for nighttime driving for more than 20 years. Piersma says they’ve harnessed the science of electrochromics.

“Electrochromics is darkening material using electricity. And what’s unique about the mirror is there’s electronics in there; you’ve got a circuit board, you’ve got a microprocessor, you have censors.”

All of those electronics have made rearview mirrors more costly. A high tech mirror can cost carmakers eight times more than standard mirror. 

Testing the display

I put Gentex’s new display mirrors to the test in an Acura sedan. Piersma sets cones up behind the sedan, along with a kid’s bicycle. First we use the standard rearview mirror, and I cannot see the bike or the cones at all. Piersma says that means this car’s blind zone is more than 20 feet.

“The cones that were behind us were 20 feet back there and they’re 32 inches high. So if there was a child on that bike, riding by you as you started your car in the morning to back up for work you would not see that little kid behind your car.”

For most cars, that blind zone is about 10 to 15 feet. It’s roughly 15 to 30 feet for trucks and SUVs.

Next we do the test with the video display in the mirror. The little pink bike is only about a half an inch tall in the screen. But I can make it out the instant I put the car in gear.

Possible problems

David Champion tests vehicles at Consumer Reports and thinks the mirrors are promising safety advancement. But he warns that camera location on the back of the vehicle can make all the difference.

“Some people put it sort of underneath the lip of the trunk lid above the license plate, which seems to collect a lot of dirt in that area. Especially in these winter conditions where you have muck on the road and it sprays up, that reduces the visibility tremendously of what you can see behind.”

Champion says in some cases that dirt and debris builds more quickly. In those cases, the driver may have to wipe off the debris (or get their car washed) to be able to see the display properly.

Anticipating more business

Gentex has been shipping the back-up camera mirrors to carmakers for nearly four years. Now it’s shifting manufacturing operations a new plant down the street to accommodate an expected boom in the high-tech mirror business.

That’s because the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is getting involved. It’s now reviewing comments from safety groups, businesses, and drivers across the country about proposed changes to require all new cars to have some sort of rear-view camera display by 2014.