HOLLAND, MICH. — The auto industry is taking a second look at rearview mirrors, and seeing not what has passed, but an electronic future. While most such mirrors sold worldwide still are of the same basic design used for generations — treated glass placed in injection molded plastic — suppliers now are adding new features, with everything from map lights to microphones and wireless communication systems based in the plastic housing.
Those programs are just the first pieces of a potential $2.5 billion industry, suppliers say, that aims to turn the simple mirror into an electronic module wrapped inside plastic and glass.
"That [mirror] is a vital piece of real estate," said Mark Stidham, vice president and general manager of Donnelly Corp.'s outside mirror and handle systems business unit.
"They're an ideal place for gauges and sensors and monitors," Stidham said in a May 23 interview at Donnelly's Holland headquarters.
Donnelly has three shifts working seven days a week to keep up with the mirror demand and has invested in new production lines for high-technology systems.
One of its top competitors, Gentex Corp., in neighboring Zeeland, Mich., just completed a $12 million, 170,000-square-foot mirror manufacturing plant next to its headquarters. It expects to max out capacity there within three to four years, and anticipates future construction in Europe.
The company predicts its business will continue to grow by 20-25 percent annually for at least the next five years.
"We've got some very creative people who are looking at the needs of the [auto] industry," said Connie Hamblin, Gentex corporate secretary and director of corporate communications.
"We're just starting to identify what is in the instrument panel that we could put in the mirror."
Last year, about 9 percent of all auto mirror systems sold worldwide carried automatic dimming or other electronic features — accounting for $260 million in total sales.
Gentex predicts the electronic share of the mirror market could reach 50 percent of all of the more than 50 million cars made worldwide each year, for a marketplace worth more than $2 billion.
"Just going from thinking of the mirror as a piece of reflective glass to putting lights in it was a major mind change for us," Stidham said.
Consider all the bells and whistles now available on interior mirrors: an outside temperature gauge, automatic dimming, odometer, tire pressure gauges, a compass, electronic openers for a garage door, gate or security system link and map lights.
Exterior windows are available with extra turn signals to warn a car in your blind spot, power adjustments and a "ground illumination" light that comes to life with a touch of a keyless entry switch and brightens up the area around the vehicle in a dark parking lot.
Interior mirror housings typically are PVC while exterior systems are made from a variety of plastic resins, Stidham said.
Within just a few years, sensors on the exterior mirror will monitor for cars in your blind spot and trigger a visible warning on your interior mirror. They could house sensors for automatic windshield wipers or self-adjusting cruise controls.
A circuit board in the mirror system controls the electronic programs, making it easy to add or replace options at a relatively low cost compared to redesigning an instrument panel, said David Campbell, operations manager for Donnelly's interior mirrors.
But the biggest single jump for mirror-housed electronics has just hit both Donnelly and Gentex, with General Motors Corp. picking the housing of interior mirrors as a home site for its OnStar communications system.
With GM expecting to boost OnStar use to 1 million vehicles by the end of this year, up from 100,000 in 1999, the companies and their suppliers are gearing up for growth.
Last month, OnStar picked up its first non-GM user, with Honda Motor Co. slated to put the system in its 2002 Acura RL sedans — expanding the potential market even further.
OnStar, which uses satellite and cellular technology to link drivers with technicians in a central control office, will add mobile telephone service to the system for the 2001 model year.
The mirror is just the latest of three locations for the three buttons and microphone interface, said OnStar spokeswoman Geri Lama. It also goes into instrument panels and overhead consoles.
"It's spread around," she said.
But mirror makers maintain it is the most logical site, since it is easier to change the mirror system in a car than find room on a crowded instrument panel or console.
It also is within drivers' normal range of vision, making it a safer location.
"When you're looking at a display in the mirror, you're not taking your attention off the road," Stidham said. "You're not always looking at an instrument panel or gauge cluster."
They also are quick and easy to replace, with a fully loaded system snapping onto the same support as a basic one. That makes it much easier to sell OnStar or any other added features as an option — without redesigning the entire interior, Campbell said.
"The beauty of it is that there is a lot of flexibility available in developing the product," he said.
Gentex expects more than 80 percent of future OnStar systems to go in mirrors, Hamblin said.
That also means a better profit margin for the suppliers. A basic glass-and-plastic mirror sells to the automakers for less than $5. A top-of-the-line model is worth $20 or more, with suppliers profiting from the added value.
Donnelly produces more than 13 million basic mirrors in Holland for both the North American and Asian markets. Its Naas, Ireland, facility supplies the European market.
In business since 1905, Donnelly saw few technical innovations in mirror systems for generations of workers.
By the late 1980s, though, the industry began placing electronics in mirrors. Donnelly's first experiment was with map lights mounted on the bottom of the housing.
It was a revolutionary step, Campbell said.
"You didn't just add lights to it, you took them away from somewhere else in the car," he said. "That gave us a different mind-set. You'd say: `Let me see, if I can take lights from the overhead console, then what else can I scam?'"
At about the same time, Gentex, which had specialized in fire protection systems, began using its low-light-level sensors to detect changes outside the car.
One sensor facing the windshield detects the ambient light — if it's day or night, Hamblin said. Another faces the rear of the car. If it detects bright headlights from an approaching auto after dusk, it automatically dims the mirror.
Gentex's first mirrors dimmed the light with a motor that would flip it, much as the manual switch did on standard prism-shaped mirror systems.
It soon switched to "electrochromics," using the sensors to trigger a color change in an electronically sensitive gel in the glass.
Donnelly has its own molding lines for base interior and exterior mirrors, but buys from other molders for its electronic styles. Gentex buys all of its molded parts for interior mirrors and supplies just the electronic components for exteriors.
Donnelly is the bigger company, with more than 6,000 employees and nearly $900 million in annual sales. It produces more than 18 million mirrors annually.
Gentex, with 1,421 employees and $262 million in sales, does not make any basic mirrors, but accounts for nearly 90 percent of the world electronic mirror market, with nearly 6 million interior mirrors sold annually.
Electrochromic exterior mirrors are sold on less than 1 percent of all vehicles.
Both companies are looking for the next technological breakthrough for mirror systems. Gentex is focusing on a light-emitting diode system that uses a smaller, cooler light source.
It also is experimenting with transflexive coatings, which would allow digital display directly on the mirror surface, rather than showing it through the glass or below the reflection. One test piece is a German taxi mirror showing fare information.
Donnelly, meanwhile, is developing a series of cameras mounted on the car that would eliminate exterior mirrors altogether.
GM used the cameras on its Precept concept car at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January.
The only real limit to a mirror's transition from reflective glass to an electronic module, Stidham said, is imagination.
"It's a self-driving technology," he said. "You really can let your mind wander as to what you can do with that real estate."