The digital side mirror technology is one of those technologies that cars in the US market have not yet been allowed to enjoy. Vehicles are offered by several manufacturers in Europe or Asia with aero-enhancing technology, but current US vehicle regulations mean cars here have to be sold with old-fashioned mirrors. And let me tell you folks – after you’ve tried digital side mirrors on a Euromarket carI’d be perfectly fine if they never made it here.
Just so we’re all on the same page, digital side mirrors replace the physical mirrors on either side with cameras. The cameras are attached to thin stalks that protrude from the same area as a typical mirror, and said live camera feed is channeled into screens on either side of the car, in the same general space you’d direct your eyes to looking at him is a mirror.
This is where a few undeniable benefits come into play. For one thing, the car is becoming more aerodynamically efficient. Conventional mirrors are (literally) a huge drag on a car’s drag coefficient. Look at them Audi Q8 E-tron example. The US spec version with traditional mirrors faces a 0.02 increased drag coefficient over the Euro spec Q8 E-Tron with its digital side mirrors. For an electric vehicle – where overall range is a key purchasing criterion – that’s a huge number that will make a noticeable difference. Second, mirrors are notorious for causing wind noise in the cabin. Manufacturers try theirs best to construct around, but there’s no denying that a big thing sticking out the side of the car is going to make some noise at 70 mph. Of course, if you drastically reduce the size of that protrusion, like a small camera does instead of a mirror, the noise it makes also reduces. That’s great!
Those are the pluses. The unfortunate downside is that in practice, side mirrors just aren’t as pretty or natural to use. I have to spend about eight hours in the saddle a 2024 Audi Q8 E-Tron with its side mirrors, and even after that time I never liked the tech. Of the issues, the most notable is the change of perspective that your eyes and brain must go through every time you look at the screens in the cabin. Of course, when you shift your gaze from the street to a traditional mirror, your focus and view of the world remains the same. When we see a vehicle in the mirror, our brain sorts spatially—or at least that’s what years of driving has trained it to do—by distance, closing speeds, and more. Go ahead and ditch all that with camera side mirrors because trying to decipher how far away a car is and how fast it’s going on a screen is a whole different ballgame. It requires a concentration far greater than a quick shift of the eyes. Instead, I found myself glancing at the screens for long periods, trying to figure out where a car was in relation to me. That’s more time when I take my eyes off the road ahead, which is always a bad thing. A constant shift in focus from something that seems very far away to something just a few meters away from you can be disconcerting for anyone. People who find digital rearview mirrors – seen in many vehicles now sold in the US – will find their annoyances magnified by side camera mirrors.
Another unexpected downside is the inability to customize your point of view. Before driving a car with camera side mirrors, I had no idea how much I would tilt, slide, or shift my head to get a slightly different view out of my side mirrors. Situations with ever-changing traffic or congested intersections require last-minute checks or insights, which a subtle tilting forward or sideways in a regular mirror can provide. Pay serious attention to those small but barely noticeable movements you make the next time you ride. With a camera mirror you get 100% what you see. If you want to see more than what the camera is constantly pointing at, a full turn of the head is necessary. It was a nagging anger that I could never quite shake off. Plus, for you nerds who want a peek at the rear of that neat car that just passed you the other way, forget it. A vehicle moving even slowly in the opposite direction becomes a blob on the screen before your eyes even have a chance to register.
I’m sure you’re all waiting for me to complain about bad weather or nighttime performance as well, but I’m sorry to say that in all the time I’ve spent with these mirrors, I haven’t spent a single minute on dark or snowy/rainy conditions. Manufacturers develop protection from inclement weather, but they do the same for digital reversing cameras, and most of the solutions don’t work nearly as well as I had hoped. Based on experience, I cannot say for the time being whether side camera mirrors are an acceptable alternative in these scenarios.
One particular detail that I particularly liked and that is specific to the Q8 E-Tron I drove was the implementation of the blind spot warning. In this way, it was superior to traditional blind spot warning. Instead of just a light turning on and off in the mirror as usual, the in-car screen would switch from a yellow outline to a red as a car pulled in and out of your blind spot. This outline of the screen is easy to see in your peripheral vision and provides easily digestible information with very little effort on my part.
Despite the benefits, for the most part I found wing mirrors less useful for understanding which vehicles were behind or beside me than traditional mirrors. That sucks because I’m usually all for new technologies that could theoretically make us safer. In this case, however, I’m happy to trade a little drag and wind noise for a safer view of traffic.