PH Origins: Night vision

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.

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (16) Join the discussion on the forum

  • Turbobanana 05 Mar 2018

    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 05 Mar 2018

    When someone mentions using night vision in cars I just think of Jackie Chan in the Cannonball Run.

  • Lewis Kingston 05 Mar 2018

    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 05 Mar 2018

    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 05 Mar 2018

    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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