Each time you drive if you dread the “blind spot” you are not being unnecessarily dreadful. The blind spot causes accidents routinely, all over the world, and is a nightmare for both new and veteran drivers.
In the US, approximately 9% of crash scenarios involve changing lanes or merging. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in Washington D.C. states that approximately 840,000 side-to-side blind spot collisions with 300 fatalities occur every year in the United States. Fortunately, technology is evolving to aid drivers in seeing and avoiding obstacles hiding in their blind spot.
Let’s take a look at the different designs companies and individual inventors have patented over the years. While early designs were purely optics-based, later designs are tilted towards sensors and/or camera-based technologies.
In 1941 inventor Park Everett O filed for a patent titled “Rearview mirror for vehicles” (US patent 2,330,444) which provided means of changing the angle of reflection of the mirror to give the driver a better view of his blind spots.
Decades later, in 1988, George E. Platzer Jr. filed for a patent titled “Remote control mirror with angular viewing adjustments” (US patent 5,033,835). The patent details the invention of a mirror structure in which there are main and auxiliary viewing portions. The driver adjusts the mirror such that a selected reference portion of the vehicle is seen in the auxiliary viewing portion of the mirror. The main viewing portion then gives the driver an enhanced view of existing traffic.
Fairly recently, in 2007, Robert Andrew Hicks, a math professor at Drexel University, filed a patent titled “Wide angle substantially non-distorting mirror” (US patent 8,180,606). The patent describes a mirror made up of many small, reflective surfaces that increases the field of view by about 30 degrees while minimizing distortion.
Adding electronics to the mix
In addition to the simpler optical based solutions, there is a history of higher tech solutions. In 1979, inventor Mitchell G. Bates filed for a patent titled “Blind spot detector for vehicles” (US patent 4,260,980). The patent describes using a simple sensor to detect moving objects within a vehicle’s blind spot. This patent is one of the early non-optics based blind spot monitoring systems.
More recently, Donnelly Corporation, a supplier of automotive components (which was a major name in the rear view market back in the 1970s), holds a patent titled “Vehicle blind spot detection display system” which describes a system for displaying to the driver the status of the blind spots. Indicators are located on the interior and exterior mirrors and notify the driver of the presence of an obstacle in their blind spot.
Welcome to the 21st century
Ford Global Technologies Inc. holds a patent titled “Blind spot warning system for an automotive vehicle” (US patent 6,859,148). The patented system uses multiple cameras to monitor blind spots around a vehicle and then activates an indicator to warn the driver of a vehicle entering one of the blind spots. Similarly, Ford uses the Blind Spot Information System (BLIS) developed by Volvo, a child company of Ford at the time of development.
Ford’s BLIS operates using two multiple-beam radar modules to detect a vehicle entering the defined blind spot zone. When a vehicle enters a blind spot zone, an indicator light on the corresponding side-view mirror is illuminated in order to warn the driver of an approaching vehicle. The system is also capable of providing cross traffic alerts such as about oncoming traffic from the left or right when backing out of a parking space.
In 2008, Mazda began to offer a blind spot monitor called Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM) with its 2008 Mazda CX-9 Grand Touring. Mazda has since expanded BSM to other vehicles in its line. Later, in 2009, Ford adapted the system to many of the vehicles under the Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury brands.
Another technique is explained in a patent held by Hyundai Motor Company and KIA Motors Corporation. The patent (US patent 8,384,782) describes a method in which multiple cameras located on a vehicle are used to capture images of the environment around the vehicle. The images are then used to construct a bird’s eye view of the vehicle and its surroundings.
More aggressive solutions to the blind spot problem are beginning to emerge such as Infiniti’s Blind Spot Intervention (BSI) system. The system works similarly to other vehicle’s systems in that it uses radar to detect obstacles in the blind spot and warns the driver with appropriate indicators. Infiniti’s system goes a step further, though, and will apply the brakes to avoid a collision if necessary.
The wide variety of blind spot technology brings no shortage of litigation. In 2011, Eagle Harbor Holdings LLC (“Eagle Harbor”) filed a lawsuit against Ford Motor Company (“Ford”) for allegedly infringing various patents owned by Eagle Harbor Holdings LLC. In the lawsuit, Eagle Harbor argued that Ford infringed its patent by selling their Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury branded vehicles equipped with BLIS with Cross Traffic Alert, SYNC and Active Park Assist features. Ford countersued Eagle Harbor and argued that the latter allegedly raised money based on the material provided by Ford. After four years of battling it out in the Court, the parties settled in September 2015 under undisclosed terms.
Another interesting litigation where blind spot technology is at issue is the set of lawsuits brought by Signal IP Inc. Signal IP filed a number of complaints alleging patent infringement against various automakers, including Ford Motor Company, Mazda, and others in 2014. These patents cover several safety features, including using radar system for blind spot issues. Since then, several automakers filed IPRs against the patents in suit, with some success. Also, in early November a California federal judge found a pair of claims invalid in one of the patents in suit. Signal IP has settled cases with several parties, including Volvo, Mazda and Mitsubishi, while trial is scheduled next year with respect to various other parties such as Ford and Fiat. It will be interesting to see how these cases shake out.
Ultimately, car safety has and always will be a top consideration for automotive companies as they try to gain an edge over their competitors. We expect to see more litigation related to automotive safety patents, especially as tech giants like Google, Tesla and even Apple start to gain a larger presence in the auto industry.
(Featured image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenniferboyer/10895129556/in/photolist-hAKHJY-hALorj-hALacH-hALRsa-ogtBRY-8c3omm-5wrz1p-dthtvX-dugcMs-o8qExC-2spB-8tUkd3-aAirCQ-nTk2Jh-cysGSq-9BBYmu-5CZatj-dvvfR-wsTZY)