The humble rearview mirror is about to be transformed into a high-tech hub of auto electronics.
The technical advances being made with rearview mirrors follow a revolution in the cell phone industry. When cell phones reached the market in the 1980s, they were large and clumsy. Today, some barely fill the palm of a hand, yet are capable of accessing the Internet.
The rearview mirror is on the verge of a similar transformation, said Kenneth La Grand, executive vice president at Gentex Corp.
Gentex is based in Zeeland, Michigan, USA. It is already supplying General Motors with automatic-dimming rearview mirrors that contain an interface with the OnStar system.
GM will use the OnStar interface mirror on 14 models in the 2001 model year. In addition to automatic dimming, some versions contain a compass display and advanced map lamps.
Smaller cell phones were made possible by advanced electronics.
'I would say our electronic boards are still comparable to several-year-old technology from the cell phone industry,' La Grand said. 'So we've got a lot of ability to condense it and put still more content into the mirror. There are a lot of electronic integration techniques that we haven't employed yet.'
OnStar, using the global positioning system satellite network and wireless technology, links the driver and vehicle to the OnStar Center. Advisers at the OnStar Center can handle emergencies, answer questions and arrange for concierge services.
Locating the OnStar interface on the rearview mirror is just the beginning of the mirror's potential, La Grand said.
Gentex uses single-sided circuit boards, or in some cases, one side of double-sided circuit boards in the rearview mirror. That means Gentex can put components on both sides of double-sided circuit boards.
'Then there's all kinds of multilayered boards that help you put in more electronics or shrink your package,' La Grand said. 'We haven't had to use it in mirrors yet, but it's pretty common in other high-density consumer electronics or military electronics to go to these multilayered boards.'
La Grand sees a telematics rearview mirror that will house the electronics necessary to link the vehicle to the digital world.
Rearview mirrors are excellent sites for hands-free microphones, antennas, global positioning system receivers, wireless modems, microprocessors, user interfaces and various displays, La Grand said. Automakers are beginning to use the rearview mirror as an integral electronic module, he said.
In the near future, La Grand said, drivers will be able to plug a laptop computer into a vehicle that will access the Internet with a wireless modem in the rearview mirror.
Gentex has a commitment from a second automaker to develop a telematics mirror to be introduced in the mid-2001 model year, La Grand said.
'Then that product will be upgraded in sophistication probably for each of the next two or three model years,' he said.
La Grand would not identify the automaker, but said: 'We are working with Ford on telematics solutions. Probably, in the end, we'll have commitments from at least three or four additional automakers, and maybe more than that.'
Global positioning system antennas, now located in the rear window, are open to the sky from the rearview mirror, La Grand said. By integrating the global positioning system antenna and receiver in the mirror, an automaker can dispense with coaxial cable running to the rear of the vehicle, he said.