RE: PH Origins: Night vision

RE: PH Origins: Night vision

Monday 5th March

PH Origins: Night vision

Want to show drivers what lies beyond the reach of their headlights at night? Time to break out some military-sourced equipment...



Cadillac, in the 1990s, was going through a crisis. Its staid, uninteresting cars didn't appeal to younger buyers and the brand, with its ever-dwindling pool of older followers, was going stale.

It was also facing increasing competition from the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW and Lexus. Cadillac, at a vast rate of knots, was in danger of becoming an also-ran in its home country.

In order to restore some glamour to its brand, the company rolled out a new 'art and science' strategy in late 1999. 'Art' defined Cadillac's sharp new design language, while 'science' predictably represented the ways in which the company would showcase its engineering capabilities.

On the 'science' front, Cadillac had several options. For example, it had reputedly been studying ways to improve the safety of night-time driving since 1984. Because safety was becoming an increasingly important consideration among buyers, a flagship technology would be of great benefit.


Night vision was one option that had been discussed, as there were limitations to what could be achieved with conventional illumination. It would also, hopefully, grab the attention of younger, tech-loving buyers.

Three types were available at the time. The first was the straightforward image intensifier; this would capture even the dimmest incoming light and output it on frequencies visible to the human eye, granting an 'intensified' view of the scene ahead. Improvements could be achieved by adding an infrared light, not visible to the human eye, which would deliver a far clearer, sharper view - a set-up called 'active illumination'.

Both could struggle when faced with bright light sources, such as oncoming headlights, making them less suitable for automotive use at the time. The third type, thermal imaging, appeared more suitable. The cameras, which measure the difference in temperature between objects by capturing thermal radiation, couldn't be dazzled and didn't deteriorate in rain or fog.

None were new technologies, at this point, mind. Hungarian physicist and inventor Kalman Tihanyi had developed the first infrared-sensitive camera in 1929, in order to allow anti-aircraft gunners a better chance of spotting targets at night. The Germans later outfitted limited numbers of Panther tanks, anti-tank guns and infantry weapons with active infrared illumination in the mid-1940s. For example, the 7.92mm 'StG 44' assault rifle was offered with a night vision scope dubbed 'Vampir'.


The desirable thermal imaging cameras, however, were far more complicated and didn't see meaningful military application until the 1980s. While they could function in complete darkness, they had myriad problems. They were bulky and power hungry, as the infrared sensors used typically had to be cryogenically cooled to below -150°C. They were also terrifically expensive, had a short lifespan and could take several minutes to reach operating temperature.

The American Department of Defence, frustrated by the warm-up time of cooled infrared systems, had started throwing money at the problem in the 1980s. After all, a system that could let a tank's gunner see at night wasn't much good if, in those few critical moments, the tank had already been engaged and knocked out.

Subsequently, Texas Instruments' Defence Systems and Electronics division - which produced electro-optical systems, missiles and more - found itself on the receiving end of a large DoD contract, the aim of which was to develop sensors with reduced warm-up times. The company's efforts led to the development of uncooled detectors, which operated in a wide range of conditions. Besides being far less expensive, they were also smaller.

By 1992 the uncooled thermal imaging cameras had been declassified and efforts had begun to market them to other businesses. Texas Instruments, it transpired, had been attempting to develop an automotive night vision system for eight years by that point. With the new uncooled detectors to hand, a commercial system was suddenly viable.


The first, dubbed 'NightSight', had a standalone screen and was used in 1993 by law enforcement units; it proved useful, for example, for locating lost people along the side of the road and in woods. It was still expensive, though, with sources citing a $10,000 list price in 1996.

Around this time, however, US military electronics specialist Raytheon was looking to strengthen its position in the defence market - and Texas Instruments was losing interest in its military division, as competition was strong and profits were falling. A little consolidation would help its core business survive so, in 1997, it sold its defence systems unit to Raytheon - along with everything relating to the NightSight.

Cadillac's parent company, General Motors, also sold its electronic defence arm - Hughes Electronics, which had also researched automotive night vision - to Raytheon in the same year. GM was aware of the NightSight and, now that the two companies had established a relationship, it made sense for it to take advantage of what was now Raytheon technology. The new Cadillac Deville was due in late 1999 and the NightSight would help the flagship saloon fulfil the 'science' part of the brand's new strategy.

The resulting product, simply called 'Night Vision' by Cadillac, used an uncooled thermal imaging camera mounted in the grille. The image was relayed to the driver via a Delphi-Delco Electronics-developed head-up display, making it easier for drivers to see hazards ahead. At launch, it cost $2,000.


It was claimed that, with normal lights, the driver could see around 90 metres at night. With the thermal imaging system, however, that range was claimed to extend to over 450 metres. It also provided superior visibility in poor weather and wasn't affected by lights ahead, improving safety; Cadillac even used it to good effect in its Le Mans prototype racers in 2000. Popular Science magazine was so impressed that the system promptly won the annual 'Best of What's New' in automotive technology.

The system was later rolled out in the Hummer H1 and H2. Toyota then ventured into the night vision game in 2002, introducing an active infrared intensification night vision system called 'Night View' in the Lexus LX470 and Landcruiser. Mercedes-Benz wasn't far behind, releasing a similar system in the 2005 W221-generation S-Class.

While Cadillac's night vision set-up initially proved popular, however, cost and image quality issues led the company to withdraw it in 2005. It undoubtedly had benefits compared to image intensification systems but the image quality wasn't as good and in warm conditions its capabilities lessened considerably. It wasn't until 2015, with the launch of the flagship CT6, that the technology had developed enough to warrant its reintroduction.

Author
Discussion

Turbobanana

Original Poster:

1,088 posts

134 months

Monday 5th March
quotequote all
Interesting article, as ever with "Origins", but I'm not sure I'd be comfortable taking my eyes off the road to look at a screen for any length of time.

In fairness I've never tried it, but driving down the M1 on Wednesday I was confronted by fog AND falling snow, a pretty rare combination in my experience. I found myself looking as far ahead as I could for about 5 solid minutes until through the fog, ignoring all else around me including rear view mirror and instruments.

thegreenhell

4,439 posts

152 months

Monday 5th March
quotequote all
When someone mentions using night vision in cars I just think of Jackie Chan in the Cannonball Run.

Lewis Kingston

156 posts

10 months

Monday 5th March
quotequote all
Turbobanana said:
I'm not sure I'd be comfortable taking my eyes off the road to look at a screen for any length of time.
This is one of the things I find slightly counterintuitive about many of the modern systems. While the additional visibility offered is appreciated, I dislike the idea of taking my eyes off the road (particularly at higher speeds) to look down at the instrument cluster and then try and work out what the image contains.

Presenting it in a HUD makes more sense, a la the original Cadillac system, to me. Alas, Cadillac's put it back in the instrument cluster (like Mercedes) in the CT6. That said, you do get a warning in the head-up display if it thinks there's something the night vision gear has picked up that you need to pay attention to, which is a saving grace.

(And thank you for the comment! smile)

Turbobanana

Original Poster:

1,088 posts

134 months

Monday 5th March
quotequote all
Lewis Kingston said:
Turbobanana said:
I'm not sure I'd be comfortable taking my eyes off the road to look at a screen for any length of time.
That said, you do get a warning in the head-up display if it thinks there's something the night vision gear has picked up that you need to pay attention to, which is a saving grace.
Is that any better? I mean, now you have a warning, which encourages you to look at the display and assimilate its information, then react. Sounds like another step to me, although I do acknowledge that this will mean you’re not permanently looking away from the windscreen.

Moot point, in fairness, as I’m never likely to own a Cadillac!

Zombie

1,210 posts

128 months

Monday 5th March
quotequote all
Inte sting to see how tech has moved on when you can buy a FLIR thermal camera that attaches to your phone for a couple hundred quid (or less) now. Pics from my now defunct version:


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Zombie

1,210 posts

128 months

Monday 5th March
quotequote all

Lewis Kingston

156 posts

10 months

Monday 5th March
quotequote all
Zombie said:
Always a good view, regardless of the device you're looking through! biggrin

Edited by Lewis Kingston on Monday 5th March 15:55

Toltec

5,431 posts

156 months

Monday 5th March
quotequote all
Zombie said:
Good to see how these have come on, I used to build equipment to test thermal imager performance back in the 90's.

MikeGalos

216 posts

217 months

Monday 5th March
quotequote all
Turbobanana said:
Interesting article, as ever with "Origins", but I'm not sure I'd be comfortable taking my eyes off the road to look at a screen for any length of time.
I drove one of the original Cadillac units for quite a while and once you got the position and brightness of the Heads Up Display configured for your driving position and used it for a few times it really became quite useful and you just included scanning it once in a while and using it in your peripheral vision the rest of the time.

One side fact. GM was charging $2,000 for the units but was selling them below cost to get the price down that far with the camera alone costing more than that. Cadillac was counting on the buzz of the technology being worth it as they expected few people to order that expensive an option.

A local high tech startup who used the same Raytheon FLIR camera found it was cheaper to contact people interested in the Cadillac DTS and have them order the option than to buy the cameras new. They'd pay the owner $3,000 for the camera, remove it and pay to have the grille replaced with the standard replacement part that had the Cadillac logo where the camera aperture had been. Everyone but GM made a profit.

Lewis Kingston

156 posts

10 months

Monday 5th March
quotequote all
MikeGalos said:
I drove one of the original Cadillac units for quite a while and once you got the position and brightness of the Heads Up Display configured for your driving position and used it for a few times it really became quite useful and you just included scanning it once in a while and using it in your peripheral vision the rest of the time.
Thanks for all the extra information – very cool! It seems they're often retrofitted to other cars, too, as the camera just puts out a composite signal. Kinda tempted to keep an eye on eBay US for one. Would make an interesting project...

Turbobanana

Original Poster:

1,088 posts

134 months

Monday 5th March
quotequote all
That Cadillac in the second image is actually quite a handsome beast, even if it does remind me of a Hyundai XG30...

IanH755

897 posts

53 months

Monday 5th March
quotequote all
I know of a car manufacturer that's working with BAE systems, who make military helmet mounted sights, to produce something a performance car driver would wear (a set of glasses for example) whilst driving their car that would have all the relevant car details constantly displayed and would be "spatially aware" so when you moved your head around the car the display would only be visible when looking through the windscreen and disappears when you look at the centre console for example, similar to how military aircraft helmets work.

The display would be speed, tacho, gear etc and, at night, the option to merge a Thermal image with a video image to give a clearer view of the road at greater distances.

All this is in the very early stages with nothing expected for 5+ years at least but the tech is there already, it just needs "civilian-ising" to make it acceptable to wear/use, rather than a bulky pilots helmet biggrin

IbrahimLafayette

60 posts

17 months

Monday 5th March
quotequote all
Turbobanana said:
Is that any better? I mean, now you have a warning, which encourages you to look at the display and assimilate its information, then react. Sounds like another step to me, although I do acknowledge that this will mean you’re not permanently looking away from the windscreen.

Moot point, in fairness, as I’m never likely to own a Cadillac!
Audi, Mercedes and BMW highlight any detected animal or person with the full beam, usually by flashing it a few times directly at it. BMW used to have a dynamic light spot, which replaced the fog lights and just highlighted every person or large enough animal while driving at night.
One time the dynamic light spot highlighted a deer on the side of the road, as I was just going around a corner, it was very helpful. Audi and Mercedes do it in a similarly with the full beam, albeit not as focused.
Additionally you get a notification sound and symbol in the HUD, it is enough to just glance at the camera image because the object is highlighted.

It will also only detect animals from a certain size, foxes have never been detected in my experience, but boars and deer always. One time a boar has been detected behind a bush, which was very impressive.

It is a good safety feature, but an excellent LED full beam assist is probably a better investment to pick on the options list.


Edited by IbrahimLafayette on Monday 5th March 17:48

easytiger123

1,409 posts

142 months

Tuesday 6th March
quotequote all
The single most pointless option I've ever specced on a car (Bentayga). You have to take your eyes off the road to use it, and that will by definition always be at night on tricky and usually unfamiliar, unlit country lanes, ie, under circumstances when you most need to concentrate on the road ahead and not the screen between the dials. Not cheap either.

unsprung

2,395 posts

57 months

Tuesday 6th March
quotequote all
Another article that sets the mind to thinking. Thanks.

It's particularly interesting to learn how it all began. Too large and too costly. Everybody on the team knows that the system will be much improved in 20 years' time, and that they're working on something that is at once pioneering and, in a sense, Neanderthal.

The range and the all-weather capabilities are very impressive. A sort of magic, really.

There's a side-by-side comparison (with / without thermal imaging) at this video, here. The difference is simply ridiculous!


Toltec

5,431 posts

156 months

Tuesday 6th March
quotequote all
easytiger123 said:
The single most pointless option I've ever specced on a car (Bentayga). You have to take your eyes off the road to use it, and that will by definition always be at night on tricky and usually unfamiliar, unlit country lanes, ie, under circumstances when you most need to concentrate on the road ahead and not the screen between the dials. Not cheap either.
Thinking on that, as I wear glasses for driving if the display was not optically at infinity it would be a bit out of focus anyway so a HUD would be the right version for me.