With a fully electrified drivetrain, clever fast charging systems and cutting-edge digital information technology, Audi’s freshly unboxed E-Tron is far from conventional, but the company’s first EV heralds a revolutionary feature that is not just unusual, it’s unique.
Place an order for an E-Tron and you’ll get the option to ditch the conventional glass door mirrors in favour of new ‘virtual exterior mirrors’ and the automotive first is more than just a flashy gimmick.
The clever rearward facing cameras add another $3500 to the bottom line, but Audi’s revolutionary feature brings some significant technological advances and advantages. Here’s why Audi’s innovation is one of the coolest features to be seen on a new model in years.
Audi Virtual Exterior Mirrors
Instead of a normal pod housing a glass mirror as found on virtually every production car since door mirrors became a legal requirement, Audi’s virtual exterior mirror has a more compact camera housed in a slimline stalk.
It captures images in real time along each side of the vehicle and relays them to a 7.0-inch OLED screen just inside the car at the base of the A-pillar. There are three modes according to the type of driving.
A kerb view focusses in on the wheels for parking, intersection view for negotiating tricky junctions and a broader, higher motorway view to monitor the blind spot and approaching traffic.
The casing also includes a turn-signal repeater and a smaller camera that faces downwards and provides a quarter of the information for the 360-degree parking function.
No nasty surprises
Convex and concave mirrors can provide only a fixed focus and field of view but the virtual mirror not only provides a broader perspective, it can also focus on particular areas of importance. This is either done automatically or by an occupant manually selecting a point of interest. Blind spots, particularly on the driver’s side, are virtually eliminated.
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While mirrors can only ever reflect the amount of available light, the image from the camera is enhanced and, if necessary, brightened. The effect is similar to a night-vision camera and provides better visibility and safety at night and during bad weather.
Slippery and quiet
With a smaller frontal surface area compared with a mirror, the virtual mirror reduces wind resistance which Audi says increases the efficiency and range of the E-Tron by 5.0 percent compared with standard mirrors, and lowers the drag coefficient by 0.02Cd. There’s also less wind noise created by air flowing over obstructions.
Clean and warm
The lens of the virtual mirror is recessed deeply into the body of the housing which keeps it free from dirt, while a special heated cover prevents water and ice obscuring its view.
The pair of high-resolution OLED screens are located inside the car making their images closer and easier to see than a mirror situated outside the vehicle. The edges of the screens illuminate with colour-coded warnings to warn the driver of approaching vehicles or other potential hazards.
The screens are also touch sensitive with a proximity sensor to display options as an occupant’s hand approaches. Touchscreen controls allow the field of view to be switched as well as aiming the view in a similar manner to a conventional mirror’s adjustment.
With a lower profile overall, the virtual mirror obscures less of the overall side and forward view, offering the driver and occupants a better view of the surroundings for enhanced comfort and safety.
Concept no more
In addition to all the safety and functional advantages, Audi’s revolutionary virtual mirrors bring an incredible new look that has, until now, been confined to the fantasy world of concept cars and one-off custom builds.
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But if Audi’s E-Tron is demonstrating the value and advantages of a digital camera in place of a conventional mirror, why has it taken this long for a production version to eventuate? Ultimately it is a matter of cost and complexity.
Until now, screens may not have been able to offer images sharp enough or a picture that refreshes fast enough or that are sufficiently compact, light and affordable.
And, while Audi’s innovation still adds a significant cost to the options list, manufacturers are increasingly challenged to make their cars safer and more efficient. That’s why, in this particular case, technology is leading the way forward by looking backwards.