Rearviews in the Rearview

Elon Musk wants you to pay more for your next new car even if you don’t buy one of his cars.

The CEO of Tesla is “petitioning” the government to allow him and everyone else to eliminate rearview and exterior mirrors from new cars in favor of in-car displays fed images by cameras. He says this will result in better aerodynamics and so, improved efficiency.

He doesn’t say what it will cost.

And not just Tesla buyers.

If this “petition” is successful, the rest of the industry will ape Elon for the same reason you can’t find a new car without an LCD touchscreen or with a physical key for the ignition and door locks.

Elon is a media (and mandated) manufactured trend-setter. He is presented as “hip” and “with it.” The rest of the industry will not want to appear doughty and fuddy-duddy.

Besides which, there’s money in it. For Elon and them, too. Both up front, at purchase time, as well as down the line, when the time inevitably comes to replace a no-longer-functioning component which is also a mandatory safety component.

Nothing like a mandated “market”—something Elon specializes in.

But how much will this cost us?

First, let’s consider what we had, what we have and what is on deck.

For decades, we had a purely mechanical rearview mirror consisting of a housing, usually metal or plastic, and a small piece of mirror. A $15 item, maybe, that did it just perfectly well and usually lasted the life of the car. My almost 50-year-old Trans-Am has its original rearview mirror and it works as well today as it did back in the summer of ’75, when my car rolled off the line.

Outside rearview mirrors were more or less the same. A housing, metal or plastic, plus the small piece of mirror. Even when the first power-actuated mechanisms came online, they were still relatively simple and so relatively inexpensive.

What Elon wants won’t be.

We can get a hint of how much it won’t be by considering what it already costs to replace current rearview and side mirrors which have become partially electronic. Most now include sensors and LED lights (part of the Blind Spot Warning system — the blind spots having been created by government safety mandates that have turned car interiors into tank turrets with slit-eye views of the outside world).

These are no longer just simple housings with a piece of mirror that cost less than $50 to replace if need be.

Damage one of these hybrid mechanical-electronic mirrors and the replacement cost is often $300 or even more, depending on how electronicized the mirrors are. They’re also very car-specific (like a modern car’s headlight “assemblies”) whereas in years past many models of car used the same side mirrors or could use generic mirrors, which kept replacement costs reasonable.

Not anymore.

Same with the inside rearviews, which have become electronicized “black boxes” integrated with the windshield. It is not uncommon to have to spend $1,000 or even more to replace a broken windshield because of the rearview mirror, which is longer just a mirror. It often includes an LCD display and cameras.

Get ready for the doubling down.

To eliminate exterior mirrors entirely, it will take more cameras, erupting like zits all over the car. The images of the outside world will be conjured on a larger LCD displays inside the car.

In Teslas, everything is displayed on one hi-res flatscreen. Several other cars have a similar set-up. They are already aping Elon.

When the screen goes dark or pixilates, it will have to be replaced.

This will not be cheap.

In part because of the technology and in part because the screen will be, is, brand-specific and proprietary (i.e., you have to buy the replacement from whomever built your vehicle at top-dollar mark-up) but also because almost no one will be able to replace it themselves, as they could easily do with a mechanical mirror you glued or screwed into place. Replacing the flatscreen will mean a trip to the dealership for the install and “programming” at $100 per hour labor.

Probably a couple hours’ worth.

As the car ages, the cost of fixing or replacing this technology may outweigh the value of the car, urging it toward the recycling bin even sooner. This will be very green indeed in terms of manufactured demand for new cars.

In the meanwhile, you won’t be able to see anything when the screen goes dark.

Because everything was displayed on that screen. In the physical rearview days, if the glue lost its stick and the thing fell off, you still had both your side mirrors. And if you lost one of your side mirrors, you still had your rearview.

It is probably true that no car in the pre-electronic age ever lost all of its rear views at the same time. In the electronic remote-view age, this will probably become common due to sudden blackouts of the LCD screen. Or because the cameras on the exterior are covered by snow. And you can’t scrape cameras, buddy, not without scratching the paint.

Another cost just not in dollars, per se.

And probably, unavoidable.

Also, the cost of insurance will increase in proportion to the replacement cost of all this technology. We’re already paying higher premiums because of the cost—actual as well as potential—of electronicized rear and sideview mirrors.

Because of gadget-addledness. Because of tedium.

Cars have become so good and so homogenous that they’ve become boring. In order to make them interesting again, electronics are being used to perform every imaginable function—up to and including driving the car. This is considered “cool” even if it offers no meaningful advantage.

A rip-tide effect is generated.

Consider, for example, how hard it has become—how almost impossible it has become—to find a new car that still has a key for the ignition (and doors) rather than a fob and buttons to push.

A key in the ignition starts the engine as quickly and easily as pushing a button, will probably outlast the car and if it ever does get lost or needs to be replaced, it’ll cost a couple of bucks—not a couple hundred bucks, as keyless fobs often do.

As remote-view camera/LCD flatscreen “mirrors” will.

Americans have become like seagulls pecking at a piece of tinfoil on the beach. Anything that glints or blinks grabs their attention.

And their wallets, too.


Photo attribution: licensed under the Creative Commons NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license.

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One Response to “Rearviews in the Rearview”

  1. David Holzman says:

    Thank you Eric Peters for a terrific column. No, we certainly don’t need to replace a simple mirror with highly vulnerable and expensive cameras to enable us to see out of our cars. On the other hand, it would be nice if the feds would mandate minimum standards of visibility out of the car. (There are still some cars with decent visibility, and there is no reason why all automakers cannot provide it.)

    The feds are asking for the public to comment on this issue–by Dec. 9. Here’s a bit more from NMA, which includes a link to the Federal Register for specific instructions on commenting (scroll down a bit). I will certainly have Mr. Peters’ column with me when I go to comment.