Looking back: Rearview cameras have been around longer than you think

1956 Buick Centurion Buick

While we always enjoy gazing in rearview at automotive history, today we’re doing it in a more literal sense. Backup cameras, which are also referred to as reverse cameras and rearview cameras, have been a required safety feature in all new American-made cars since May 1, 2018. That means the technology is relatively new, right? Wrong. It’s been around for decades.

The 1956 Buick Centurion concept car, unveiled at the General Motors Motorama in January 1956, was the first vehicle to feature a reverse camera that allowed its driver to see behind the car without having to physically turn around and look backward. Designers were so confident in the rearview camera that there were no mirrors on the car. The Centurion also featured a bubble roof and cockpit, offering unobstructed views all around.

The shapely concept car’s backup system was bulkier and more conspicuous than modern stealthy versions—a large TV camera lens was mounted in the rear and a screen was located on the dash—but it was definitely cutting-edge technology. Except that it didn’t catch on for years, not even at Buick.

It wasn’t until 1991, when a backup camera was mounted on the rear spoiler of the Japanese-market-only Toyota Soarer coupe, that a production car came equipped with the rearview feature. It took another 11 years before a vehicle with backup tech was available in the U.S., and that car—the 2002 Infiniti Q45 sedan—also came from a Japanese automaker. The Q45’s optional backup system, called a Rear-View Monitor, featured a small camera located near the rear license plate, and the image on a dashboard screen included guidance lines to help the driver park.

Toyota Soarer rear three-quarter door open
Toyota Soarer Toyota
Toyota Soarer interior

Beyond providing parking assistance, backup cameras have also proven to save lives. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than 200 people are killed annually in accidents that occurred while the driver is backing up and cannot see behind them, and cameras have the ability to see the blind spots that traditional rearview mirrors cannot.

Infiniti Q45 rear three-quarter
Infiniti Q45 Infiniti
Infiniti Q45 interior

Even without the federal mandate, some manufacturers—Acura, Buick, Honda, and Infiniti—were already making them standard as early as 2015. Ford, Nissan, and Toyota soon followed, also prior to the 2018 deadline.

These days, some modern reverse systems also provide audible warnings and even automatic braking if the car that is reversing is in the path of other vehicles or objects—even if they’re moving. The combination of all three technological advances has proven to be most effective.

Ford F150 Modern Backup Screen 360 degree view
Ford F150 backup monitor Ford

According to Carfax, a 2019 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) concluded that while “rear cameras alone reduced collision rates by only 5 percent, combining a camera with rear parking sensors reduced the backup collision rate by 42 percent, and adding automatic rear braking to the camera and parking sensors lowered the collision rate by 78 percent.”

In hindsight, it seems the Centurion’s innovative backup system was looking forward all along.

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