Regulation of the Day 220: Driver’s Side Mirrors

R. Andrew Hicks, a Drexel University math professor, has invented a driver’s side mirror that eliminates the dangerous blind spot that traditional mirrors have. But federal regulations are preventing car manufacturers from using his potentially life-saving invention.

The improved mirrors give a 45-degree field of view, compared to 15 to 17 degrees for traditional flat mirrors. And they do it without giving the distorted fish-eye view that plagues curved mirrors. Prof. Hicks told the website how it works:

“Imagine that the mirror’s surface is made of many smaller mirrors turned to different angles, like a disco ball,” Hicks said. “The algorithm is a set of calculations to manipulate the direction of each face of the metaphorical disco ball so that each ray of light bouncing off the mirror shows the driver a wide, but not-too-distorted, picture of the scene behind him.”

Pretty ingenious, frankly. And unlike many ivory tower projects, this could save lives. The trouble is that federal regulations require side mirrors to be flat. The rule made sense because, until now, curved wide-view mirrors give such a distorted view that their safety benefits are dubious at best.

Prof. Hicks’ mirrors are curved, which is why they violate federal rules for standard equipment. Of course, the curves are non-uniform with tens of thousands of inflection points, which is why they give triple the field of view with distortion comparable to flat mirrors. Regulations would do better to focus on distortion or field of view than on whether or not a mirror is curved.

Regulators should modernize mirror regulations post-haste so that car manufacturers can make Prof. Hicks’ mirrors standard equipment. As it is now, drivers could buy and install the mirrors themselves. But millions more people would benefit if car manufacturers were able to make them standard equipment.

Or, better yet, regulators could get out of the way altogether so that people like Prof. Hicks can save lives without having to say, “Sir, may I?”

You can read Prof. Hicks’ paper in which he explains his invention here.