July 06, 2012 by Aaron Strauss
Drexel University mathematics professor Robert Andrew Hicks obtained a U.S. patent May 15 for a vehicle-side mirror that allows drivers to see the “blind spot” that cannot be viewed with traditional vehicle mirrors.
Hicks designed the mirror using a mathematical algorithm that precisely controls the angle at which each point on the mirror reflects light. The result was a mirror that has a 45-degree field of view, compared to the view of 15 to 17 degrees that a flat driver-side mirror offers. Unlike ordinary curved mirrors, which significantly distort the size and distance of objects, Hicks’ mirror has almost no noticeable distortion.
“My mirror keeps the distortion to a minimum. So, for example, straight lines in the world look pretty straight in my mirror,” Hicks wrote in an email. “That is not true in ball-shaped mirrors. Take a look at the mirrors on trucks and buses, for example.”
Hicks compared the mirror to a disco ball because it consists of many small mirrors facing different angles. However, the mirror does not physically resemble a disco ball because the individual mirrors are so tiny that the whole mirror looks like a smooth surface to the naked eye.
The mirror will not be installed on new vehicles in the U.S. any time soon due to manufacturing regulations that require driver-side mirrors to be flat and only allow passenger-side mirrors to be curved if they are labeled “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.” However, it could soon be commercially available for installation on already purchased vehicles as well as new vehicles in other countries.
The University is currently working to license the mirror to manufacturers on Hicks’ behalf.
“We have had an enormous number of inquiries regarding the patent from all over the world, so a lot of business decisions need to be made by Drexel first,” Hicks wrote.
His invention is not the first attempt to eliminate blind spots for drivers. A rear-view mirror with an advertised 180-degree field of view is already commercially available. Hicks explained that these mirrors don’t control distortion the way his does.
A solution to the problem of blind spots has been years in the making. Hicks began his research on it in 2000 with the help of fellow Drexel mathematics professor Ronald Perline and then-undergraduate student Alex Alexandrov. They initially sought to design a no-blind-spot passenger-side mirror, but they did not make significant progress. Hicks turned his attention to the driver-side mirror a few years later.
“Around 2004 it occurred to me that the driver-side problem might have a decent solution, and I got to work on it. It is a generalization of a design I did when I was a postdoctoral at the GRASP lab at[the University of Pennsylvania], working on vision-based control of soccer robots,” Hicks wrote.
Hicks first explained how he designed the mirror in a 2008 article in the journal Optics Letters.