The Blind Spot: A Requiem


An algorithmically designed mirror promises to do away with the visual mysteries of the road.

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The many ways to drive with a blind spot (Wikimedia Commons)

The most obvious thing about blind spots is that they are absurd, and actually kind of offensive, and their continued existence on our highways is an egregious affront to the ease and safety and common sense that technological progress represents. I mean, really. It doesn't seem too much to ask that car design, by now, would have advanced to a point where we wouldn't always have to be wondering whether we're careening next to some invisible gas tanker.

Here's another thing about blind spots, though: Despite everything else, they're also kind of fantastic. Everything that makes blind spots so ridiculous -- their inconvenience, their anachronism, the danger they add to rote transportation -- also makes them glorious. Driving is fun. And most of that fun lies in the satisfaction of overcoming the difficulties of the current form of the automobile. In this age of computerized cars, blind spots are one of the few excuses we have left to experience driving as a sport rather than just a means of transportation. Blind spots are the awesome antithesis of the self-driving car. They make us actually have to swivel, physically, to see things that are right next to us! They're one of the greatest flaws of the modern driving experience, sure ... but also: there's the serendipity we're supposedly looking for in this world!

So it is with a heavy heart that I share this bit of scientific progress: a side-view mirror that pretty much does away with the blind spot. Dr. R. Andrew Hicks, a math professor at Drexel University, has designed a driver-side mirror using an algorithm that precisely controls the angle of light bouncing off of the device. Its field of view is around 45 degrees, while standard flat mirrors' are limited to around 15 to 17 degrees. And while curved mirrors have long been around for passenger-side road-viewing -- leading to the old "objects in mirror are closer than they appear" warning -- Hicks' creation minimizes the distortion by controlling the angle of the light refracted off the mirror. To produce that effect, the mirror, in fact, is actually a compilation of several mirrors, which are in turn the products of tens of thousands of precise angle calculations. (Hicks likens the thing, up close, to a disco ball.) 

It's the combination of all that bouncing of light that, resolved in the driver's eye, creates a fairly true-to-life picture of what's surrounding a car. Even at odd angles.

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Drexel University

And though Hicks' just-patented invention won't be standard in car manufacture anytime soon -- U.S. regulations require flat drivers-side mirrors in newly manufactured cars -- there's a good chance it will start to be included in cars elsewhere around the world. And the mirror can also be sold as an aftermarket product in the U.S. -- a gadget that's simply installed after a car's purchase.

So, great. Progress, Science, Ingenuity, the solving of long-standing problems, etc. The thing's time has certainly come -- in fact, the thing's time came approximately forty years ago. And, definitely, the new mirror will be a productive step forward for safety and transportation and humanity overall. But still.

Rest in peace, Blind Spot. I'll miss you.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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