Back to the Future
What Will Driverless Vehicles Do to the Window Film Industry?
By Jenna Reed and Casey Flores
The Mercedes-Benz F 015 concept boasts driverless features, including lounge chairs that allow a face-to-face seat configuration.
Where there is automotive glass, there can be film. But what happens if the automotive glass goes away entirely? With companies like Google, Mercedes-Benz and many others developing driverless vehicles, these robot cars are soon to be a reality and may be void of glass. This begs the question: what will its impact be on the automotive window film industry?
“Windows won’t be necessary when there’s no human inside who needs to see to pick a path,” writes Peter Wayner, tech writer, for The Atlantic. Doron Levin of Fortune Magazine asks, “What about the snow?” With new articles coming out each day on driverless vehicles, it may be hard to know what to expect.
“Autonomous implies the car truly doesn’t need anything from the outside, which is a very hard problem to solve,” explains Zachary Doerzaph, the director of the Center for Advanced Automotive Research (CAAR) at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. “We in the industry see vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication as a stepping stone to fully autonomous vehicles.”
V2V is a crash-avoidance technology that relies on communication of information between nearby vehicles to warn drivers about dangerous situations that could lead to a crash, according the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). For example, V2V could help warn a driver that a vehicle up ahead is braking and that the drivers need to slow down. It can also let a driver know that it’s not safe to proceed through an intersection because another car (yet unseen by the driver) is approaching quickly.
CAAR is studying both V2V communication and automated systems. The center’s V2V communication SUV can sense when a construction zone is nearby and give the driver advanced warning to slow down. The center’s automated vehicle also can sense a construction zone is near, give warning and slow the vehicle down if the driver ignores the warning.
So while fully autonomous vehicles are coming, Doerzaph believes that the early models will be a mixture of V2V communication and automated systems, which will still require some form of driver control. This means windows could be around for a while. What do veterans in the automotive glass industry think?
Will Windows Disappear?
Since the 1970s, glass space has actually been increasing in vehicles, says Keith Beveridge, senior vice president of Novus, a windshield repair franchise. “I have a hard time thinking glass would be phased out from a human-nature perspective,” he says. “Nobody likes to sit in the dark or without a view. We’ve made so many glass advancements over the years, I think there will be some sort of windows in vehicles, whether it be Gorilla Glass or plastics. From a durability and cost perspective, I think OEMs will have a hard time taking glass out. I think that, for the foreseeable future, glass is here to stay, especially from an affordability perspective.”
Contrary to what the Atlantic’s Wayner writes in his blog, George Weller, operations manager for City Auto Glass in St. Paul, Minn., also thinks reports of the death of the windshield are greatly exaggerated.
“Consumers will absolutely prefer the stimulus of the view of an outdoor environment to the view of the inside of a travel pod,” he explains.
Brian VanWyk, operations manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic Auto Glass, doesn’t plan to ride in a vehicle without windows anytime soon.
“I would want windows because I would like to see where we are going and if we are in any danger,” he says. “After these [driverless vehicles] are out for a while, the younger people who are more into devices (smartphones, tablets et al) probably won’t care about windows. I’ll always need a windshield and steering wheel.”
While fully autonomous vehicles aren’t here yet, advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) are. These systems, which utilize cameras to understand and react to a vehicle’s surroundings, are slowly becoming mainstream.
For now, it’s more commonly seen in higher-end models, says Rick Zirbes, of Dick and Rick’s Auto Upholstery in Bloomington, Minn. Zirbes’ company offers ADAS calibration, installs airbags, works on vehicle electrical systems and much more.
“It will migrate down to every vehicle and every form,” he says. “With V2V coming, automakers will need to offer more technology like this. These cameras tie into picking up pedestrians, bicycles, etc. All automakers have set rules and guidelines as to how they want you to calibrate these systems. It’s a here-and-now technology. It’s going to happen.”
Zirbes says tinted windows could disrupt a vehicle’s calibration.
“That can be an issue,” he says. “I’ll use a Subaru as an example. They have two cameras at the top and actually have a pattern that they want you to put on the windshield if there are issues that makes the camera not calibrate correctly.”
This involves putting a black-and-white patterned target designed by Subaru in front of the car at a certain distance and height. The camera is at the top of the windshield by the rearview mirror. The dot matrix goes around the camera, Zirbes says, so “you can only imagine what window film would do.”
But while tinting windshields is rare, cameras in the back window can be more worrisome when it comes to ADAS in the future.
“There is a camera on the Nissans, but that’s just to broadcast into your rearview mirror,” Zirbes says, though he explains that will eventually be amplified to be a V2V camera. At that point, a back window with tint on it could become a concern.
“We drive the cars to calibrate them and we can’t do it when it’s dark,” Zirbes explains. “If you put that window film up there and it gets dark really fast, there would be a problem.”
He also says the tint could give the cameras the impression that it’s dirty and it would not even calibrate.
With all the technology flooding vehicles and the market, liability is a key issue, according to Tommy Patterson, assistant technical director for Glass Doctor.
“We now have the question of liability to deal with in regard to the Advanced Driver Assist Systems (ADAS) that are becoming a more integral part of this dynamic. The industry is faced with the critical task of determining how we deal with recalibration issues on the current systems on the road today. To think beyond today or even tomorrow would be irresponsible of us as an industry at this point,” Patterson says.
If you tint a car with one of these cameras, your company’s best bet may be to set up a partnership with a local dealer for calibration following an installation, because it comes with a hefty price tag.
Zirbes says the cost of all the tools needed to calibrate ADAS across various makes and models is approximately $80,000 to $100,000, though the estimates are fluid.
And that’s if you want to risk it. Zirbes drove a car to test its faulty calibration once, and had he relied on the system, things could have gotten ugly.
“We took it out and engaged the adaptive cruise control after replacing the glass,” he explains. “As you drive down the road, the adaptive cruise control monitors the vehicles in front of you. When the vehicle in front of you slows down, you slow down. If it stops, you stop. It’s controlled by a camera. From what we could tell, it was working perfectly [without calibration]. Then suddenly a Honda merged in front of us. The vehicle would have run right into the back of the Honda.”
If you don’t think driverless technology and calibrating cameras are something you or your installers should be aware of, think again. Recently, ten major automakers committed to making automatic emergency breaking a standard feature on all new vehicles built. This followed a January proposal by the NHTSA to add automatic emergency braking to the list of recommended advanced safety features included in its New Car Assessment Program.
Many of these cameras are located near the top of the windshield, a prime location for a dark strip of tint. It’s something to be aware of—and maybe even ask about—before going for that future upsell.
Whether it’s today’s technology or tomorrow’s, the full effects of V2V and ADAS on the automotive glass and window film industry have yet to be seen. One thing’s for sure, though—it’s time to pay close attention.
Jenna Reed is the editor of AGRR™ magazine, Window Film magazine’s sister publication. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Casey Flores is the editor of Window Film magazine. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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