A Math Geek Built A Side-View Mirror With No Blind Spot. Why Don't Car Companies Do That?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
June 18 2012 1:11 PM

Objects in Mirror No Longer Disappear

Hicks' mirror (top) shows a much wider view, without distortion, than a standard driver's-side mirror (bottom).

Photo courtesy of Drexel University

After a decade of tinkering, a Drexel University mathematics professor has invented what’s being billed as the perfect driver’s-side car mirror. Subtly curved, it strikes a balance between the standard flat mirror—which, if not perfectly adjusted, leaves you with a dangerous blind spot—and the grossly rounded wide-angle mirrors you see on school buses, which seriously distort objects’ size and shape.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

It’s a neat innovation, one that could potentially prevent a few of the roughly 90 deaths that happen every day on U.S. roadways. No doubt Drexel’s R. Andrew Hicks deserves praise for coming up with it. The interesting question is, why did it take a lone math whiz toiling in a lab for 10 years to perfect the side-view mirror? Shouldn’t the car companies have whipped it up long ago?


Coverage of Hicks’ mirror gizmo, patented last month, has mostly glossed over that question—which is unfortunate, because the answer is interesting.

As Hicks himself explained to me, the mirror isn’t necessarily better than the ones the manufacturers already make—just different. Unlike passenger side mirrors—which bear the famous slogan, “OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR”—driver’s side mirrors are made flat in order to give the driver an accurate perception of objects’ size and distance. So objects in your driver’s side mirror are exactly as close as they appear. The blind spot is a potential downside, but it can be eliminated, or nearly eliminated, if you adjust the mirror properly.

Hicks’ mirror demolishes the blind spot, though at a cost: Like your passenger-side mirror, which is also curved (though not as intricately as Hicks’ prototype), it makes everything look a little smaller. The tradeoff might be worthwhile, but it would probably also take some getting used to.

His mirror, then, is most accurately viewed as an improvement over the existing wide-angle mirrors that you can buy at an auto-parts store. In that context, it seems a big leap forward: It shows you everything you’d want to see, without the fish-eye effect that makes everything look weird and curvy.

And why was Hicks able to do it when others didn’t? Part of it is surely his mathematical expertise—he came up with an algorithm that results in a surface ideally curved to capture a 45-degree view with minimal distortion.

But part of it was, he admits, blind luck. As it happened, he came up with the algorithm for the mirror at the same time that new machining technology made it possible to actually manufacture it. Old machining techniques could produce either flat mirrors or curved mirrors with a consistent radius, but only with newly developed freeform fabrication technologies could you quickly and precisely manufacture a “wavy” mirror, or one whose curvature is specified at every point.  Hicks worked with a Canadian firm, B-Con Engineering, which uses a (literally) cutting-edge technique called “five-axis diamond turning” to fabricate complex surfaces based on computer programs.

“I kind of naively started working on this problem, not knowing that if I had done it 10 years earlier, it wouldn’t have been possible to really make it,” Hicks told me.

The lesson, then, isn’t that car manufacturers are too stodgy to innovate on their own. It’s that, in Hicks’ words, “We’re living in a golden age of fabrication,” where a math geek can dream up a consumer technology solution on a computer, publish a paper on it—and then go ahead and make it real.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.



The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.


See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
Sept. 30 2014 10:44 AM Bull---- Market America is overlooking a plentiful renewable resource: animal manure.
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 10:59 AM “For People, Food Is Heaven” Boer Deng on the story behind her piece “How to Order Chinese Food.”
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 10:48 AM One of Last Year’s Best Animated Shorts Is Finally Online for Free
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.