Despite many of the safety innovations found in new vehicles—rear cameras, rear blindspot sensors, automatic braking—the basic chassis of a car remains a bit of a problem. Blocky pillars that give the vehicle structure and support can impair a driver’s ability to see past the four corners of the cabin. Now, we may finally have a solution.
Alaina Gassler, an 8th grader from West Grove, Pennsylvania, won the grand prize at the Society for Science & the Public’s Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology, and Engineering for Rising Stars) science fair competition for her practical invention. Using a camera mounted outside of the car, an image of the environment is picked up and fed to an interior front-projection lens that displays the footage on the pillar, which has been covered in a retroreflective fabric. The result is almost an optical illusion, where the pillar appears to become transparent.
Gassler’s idea has yet to be evaluated by automobile manufacturers. Variables like heavy rain or snow could impair the camera’s field of vision, for example, and projected images might be difficult to see in broad daylight.
Car manufacturer Jaguar introduced a similar pillar imaging system in 2014, but it has not yet gone beyond the prototype stage. Safety additions to vehicles are typically met with extreme scrutiny. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) helps set guidelines and enforce federal standards for these additions. Recently, they’ve been evaluating side- and rear-mounted cameras intended to replace rearview mirrors.
For her creative and inexpensive solution, Gassler took home a $25,000 prize. It’s all the more remarkable considering that, at 14, she’s not yet even old enough to drive.