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Forget self-driving cars—this technology is way cooler

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

Ever hit a deer? If not, consider yourself lucky. And if you have, you know it can be surprisingly traumatic—and total your car, in the bargain.

Autoliv (ALV), an automotive supplier, thinks it has technology that can reduce the 1.1 million collisions between cars and deer on American roads every year. A new night-vision system for cars uses infrared sensors to highlight objects in the road at night, far before headlights illuminate them. Like military systems that allow troops to see in the dark on a battlefield, automotive night vision relies on an infrared camera that generates thermal images of what’s ahead, with animals, pedestrians, and cyclists glowing more brightly than what’s around them.

The three-minute video above, provided by Autoliv, demonstrates what the display might look like to a driver. At the beginning, the system highlights pedestrians in a crowded urban setting. Later on, it shows deer along a wooded road. And toward the end, the video demonstrates an advanced “spotlight” function that flashes a beam of light on relevant objects the sensors detect. When it’s a deer, a strobe feature flashes the light on and off because that drives deer away.

Night vision is available now on a few high-end models from BMW, Audi, Mercedes, and Cadillac, at a cost of around $2,000 when offered as a standalone option. (More typically, it’s bundled with other tech features as part of an optional package.) The system demonstrated in the video above is projected onto the windshield, where the driver’s eyes are naturally focused, via a heads-up display. But in most cars, for now, the display appears on a dashboard screen in the center stack, between the driver and passenger seats, where the GPS system normally resides.

Like most technology, automotive night vision ought to get cheaper as more people try it out. “You’ll see it arriving on some mid-level models by 2017,” says Stuart Klapper, a managing director at Autoliv. Other common technology, such as power windows, anti-lock brakes and airbags, arrived in the automotive fleet the same way—gradually starting on the most expensive models and eventually trickling down to the whole market.

Much of the automotive press these days focuses on electric vehicles such as those made by Tesla (TSLA) and self-driving cars being developed by most automakers along with outsiders such as Google (GOOGL) and perhaps Apple (AAPL). But there are several automotive revolutions happening at once, and the one most consumers are glimpsing first involves cameras, sensors and Internet connectivity, not robotic drivers or newfangled powertrains.

Many automakers now offer camera and sensor systems that can alert the driver when a vehicle is in the mirror’s blind spot or when the car drifts out of its lane without the turn signal being pressed. Emergency-braking systems—which automatically slow or stop the car if it gets too close to a vehicle ahead—are now available on mainstream models such as the Ford (F) Fusion and Honda Civic. Rearview cameras that show what’s behind the car while you’re backing up are available on most new models and will be required as standard equipment starting in 2018. The coolest of these systems use image-enhancing technology and other magic to display a full 360-degree view of everything around the car, as if shot by an aerial camera hovering overhead. Coming next: 3D versions.

Unlike electric vehicles—which are still so costly that most automakers lose money on them—cameras and sensors have plunged in price, allowing widespread adoption and new profit opportunities for carmakers and suppliers. That’s in addition to streaming audio, in-car Internet, voice-command systems, and every other wonder the digital revolution has produced.

Some interiors now look more like the cockpit of an airliner than the dashboard of a car—which has some safety advocates worried about overtaxed drivers distracted by too many things to control. To combat that, some systems allow the driver to flip them off if the beeps or flashing alerts become annoying. Apps from Google and Apple that integrate smartphone functionality into the car don’t allow texting, video-watching or other activities that could impair safety. And automakers are constantly on the hunt for new ways to simplify all those controls, while easing the burden on the driver. It’s a good problem to have.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Liberty for All: A Manifesto for Reclaiming Financial and Political Freedom. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.