Large elephant ear side-view mirrors are a signature feature of big rigs. But they could disappear if a trucking technology company is successful in its bid to replace them with a system of cameras and digital displays.
The system could dramatically improve driver safety and fuel efficiency, according to Stoneridge Inc. of Novi, Mich.
Stoneridge’s Mirror Eye system has been on the roads in Europe since late 2016. The United Nations Economic Commission allowed trucks to remove mirrors in place of camera systems earlier that year.
The company has been testing the product in the U.S. — with mirrors still on — for about three years, including beta tests with real-world fleets since early 2017.
In December Stoneridge filed for a similar exemption from mirrors with the U.S. Department of Transportation. It hopes to secure that exemption and begin selling the product commercially this summer.
The system features multiple individually wired cameras that are redundant to protect from malfunction. They provide a driver views of the adjacent lanes, the ground on each side of the truck and the blind spot over the front of the hood.
The images appear on digital displays mounted on the interior pillars on either side of the windshield and the in the center of the where a rearview mirror typically is located as well as on the dashboard. The camera lenses are heated to protect from ice and frost. They also have a special coating that resists moisture.
Automotive engineers have long sought ways to replace side-view mirrors because they create drag that hurts fuel economy. Long-haul trucks get only about 6.5 mpg, according to the American Transportation Research Institute. Fuel accounts for about 21 percent of a motor carrier’s expense, second only to driver wages, according to ATRI, the research arm of the American Trucking Associations.
Removing the mirrors from the side of a heavy-duty truck improves fuel economy by about 2.5 percent, according to data collected from the company’s truck deployment in Europe.
Although that may seem incremental, it actually is a big number, said Brad Delco, a transport analyst at Stephens Inc.
Such an improvement for a truck that runs 115,000 miles a year at a better than industry average 7 mpg yields $1,300 in fuel savings annually, Delco said.
“Considering these guys barely have any margins, except during periods that we’re in right now when trucking is great, I’d say $1,300 per truck per year matters,” he said.
Stoneridge also believes its system has safety benefits.
A driver’s vision through mirrors is limited by blind spots, solar glare, poor night visibility, fog, rain and ice. Not so with Mirror Eye, said Ray Kirkland, a veteran driver and tester for Stoneridge.
Kirkland has driven about 165,000 miles across the U.S. with Mirror Eye during three years of internal tests. His truck also had the side mirrors installed.
The system allows him to “see where I could never see before,” Kirkland said. “I had capability where I have never had it in my 27 years on the road.”
Mirror Eye’s most popular features are the ability to see in low light situations like tunnels and at night, the cameras’ resistance to vision-distorting weather and the camera angle that tracks with the end of the trailer as it turns, according to Stoneridge.
While most truck drivers are entirely unaware of Mirror Eye’s system, one said he liked its potential.
“Can that piece of equipment make me a better and a safer driver?” said Jerry Whittenburg, an owner-operator from Beebe, Ark. “That’s what I look at. I’d have to try it just to see.”
One fleet Kirkland visited on a sales call said the blind spot in front of the right side of the hood costs the firm $35 million annually in crash damage and liability.
“It’s a fundamental shift in transportation safety,” Kirkland said.
Stoneridge is pushing for this shift in technology at a time when the trucking industry is increasingly open to change.
“All autonomous vehicle systems rely on effective vision systems, and the environment is changing pretty rapidly. I think [the industry is] a lot more conducive to embracing technology with the clear understanding that we’re trying to drive safety,” said Stephen Fox, Stoneridge’s vice president of business development.
The American Trucking Associations supports mirrorless technology, said spokesman Sean McNally. The association encourages the government to “expeditiously approve” any requests to allow it, he said. The ATA has cited safety and fuel efficiency benefits as rationale in its comments filed with the Department of Transportation.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has solicited public comment on Stoneridge’s exemption application. Stoneridge is confident the exemption will go through, probably by the end of the summer, Fox said.
If that timeline works out, Fox expects a commercial roll out of the Mirror Eye system to begin soon thereafter. Stoneridge has not disclosed anticipated pricing.