How Does Bird's Eye View Work in Cars?

Jack R. Nerad | Oct 16, 2020

If you were required to parallel park a car during your driver's test, you might remember the cold fear the task engendered. Right up there with public speaking, parallel parking a vehicle in the presence of others is something many of us just don't want to do. Ever. It requires judgment and skills that many people, perhaps for evolutionary reasons, seem to lack.

2020 Hyundai Sonata Surround View Camera

Undoubtedly, those in the throes of trying to park a big car in a relatively small parallel-to-the-curb space have often said to themselves, "I sure wish I could see everything from above, like a bird could see it." Well, as was said so sagely so long ago, seek, and ye shall find. Computer technology has made seeing a parking situation from a bird's eye view not a dream but a reality. 

These days many vehicles offer some variation of a surround-view camera system that offers exactly that top-down view from above the car. These systems often have branded names, such as Bird's Eye View Camera (Toyota), Around View Monitor (Nissan), or Surround Vision (Chevrolet). Collectively, J.D. Power calls all such systems surround-view cameras.

Nissan and its Infiniti luxury division were pioneers in offering surround-view camera technology. The Infiniti EX35 was one of the first vehicles to offer such a system. More than a decade after introducing surround-view cameras, a wide variety of Nissan and Infiniti vehicles provide it, from the inexpensive Nissan Versa to the luxurious Infiniti QX80 SUV. Not only that, the tech has spread to every other automaker.

How Does a Surround-view Camera Work?

Though surround-view camera systems deliver images similar to those a camera-equipped drone hovering 25 feet in the air over your vehicle might provide, they are not "real." Instead, the pictures and angles presented by the surround-view camera system are computer-assembled and synthesized using data drawn in from various digital cameras placed in strategic spots around a vehicle. 

Surround-view camera systems can use as many as six cameras, although the typical set-up is four cameras. One is positioned in the front, usually in the grille. Two wide-angle cameras are placed in the exterior rear-view mirror areas, and the fourth is set at the rear of the vehicle and also functions as the back-up camera. Six-camera systems add side-view cameras positioned ahead of the front wheels, enabling the car to show drivers what is on the other side of obstacles like walls and other vehicles.

Video signals from the cameras are fed into an image-processing program in the system's computer, and then the magic happens. Those individual inputs are analyzed and knitted together to offer a synthetic but positionally accurate top-down view of the car and its surroundings. In most modern systems, the pictures appear in such lifelike detail that it's difficult to believe they were not taken from 25 feet above the vehicle.

Other Uses for Surround-view Cameras

Using the same primary visual inputs and sophisticated modeling, modern surround-view camera systems can offer more than just a bird's eye view from above. For instance, by choosing different camera view options, the driver can take a good look at the passenger's side of the vehicle, what's in front of the car below the field of vision, and what is directly behind it. Seeing what you can't see from the driver's seat is an incredible advantage in those types of situations.

The European luxury marques provide several optional views that can help with dicey situations like pulling out of a blind alley onto a street with heavy traffic. Off-road vehicles use the technology as an aid when rock-crawling or cresting a steep rise. Pickup trucks even have camera technology that lets the driver "see through" a trailer to check on surroundings.

Increasingly, surround-view camera systems superimpose "guidelines" onto the image shown on the infotainment display. The guidelines can show the vehicle's current orientation and the expected direction of travel based on gear selection and steering-wheel angle. Additionally, more sophisticated systems show various views on the same screen, enabling drivers to simultaneously check the front, side, and rear of the vehicle, the points of most concern when parallel parking.

Though they take a bit of getting used to, surround-view camera systems are intuitive because they show, via simulation, what you would expect to see if you were hovering over the vehicle as you park it. Curbs, fences, boulders, other cars, and the odd tricycle are all there in realistic detail. The best systems also incorporate audible and/or haptic warnings that indicate you are coming too close to an obstruction to enhance that reality. 

If you have a vehicle with so-called bird's eye view technology, you needn't break into a cold sweat every time you're confronted with the task of parallel parking in front of folks enjoying themselves at a sidewalk cafe. Don't worry. You've got this, thanks to your surround-view camera system.

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