When I was in elementary school, one of my teachers joked that she had eyes in the back of her head–a warning to us that there would be no shenanigans when she wasn’t looking. Turns out that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) thinks everyone should have eyes in the back of their heads: Its 2014 mandate that all vehicles sold after May 2018 must be equipped with rearview cameras is soon to come into effect.
The mandate will make new cars safer (an estimated 210 people are killed and 15,000 are injured every year by cars moving in reverse). But what about the millions of other cars on the market?
Bryson Gardner, Joseph Fisher, and Brian Sander–three engineers who met while working at Apple in the iPod department–saw a need and opportunity to provide an elegant and easy-to-install backup camera on all of those other cars, so they cofounded the company Pearl. Their first product? A stealthy wireless camera that hitches to your license plate holder for $500.
As Gardner and his cofounders see it, the automotive industry is incredibly slow to bring the latest technology en masse to consumers because its takes a while to deploy new models; the development cycle for cars is years, not months like with tech. Moreover, with the rate of old vehicle retirement and new cars hitting the streets–the U.S. Department of Transportation estimates the average age of vehicles in operation is 11.4 years–only 7% of vehicles on the road at any given moment are new. This means only a small fraction of drivers overall have access to the newest innovations, whether they’re for convenience or safety.
“We believe that a car that comes off the production line should be fundamentally different from when it’s retired,” Gardner says of the way he views after-market additions to vehicles. It’s a product to constantly upgrade, not set and forget. “This is a step function to an autonomous car.”
The engineers enlisted Box Clever–the San Francisco–based industrial design firm behind Knoll’s new office chair alternative and Away’s modern tech-fueled update of the carry-on suitcase–to come up with Pearl’s design.
Made from painted die-cast aluminum alloy–chosen for its durability and all-weather resistance–Pearl looks like almost like a regular license plate holder, except that it has two small cameras and a strip of solar panels (so you never have to worry about recharging the batteries) integrated with the body. It screws into place with a special tool to prevent theft. The camera uses your phone as a display–meaning you don’t have to install an additional screen in your dashboard. The camera communicates with your phone wirelessly via an adapter.
Pearl’s cameras have a 180-degree field of vision, more than the NHTSA’s mandated 130-degree field. To come up with the UX, the company enlisted an expert who helped develop Apple’s CarPlay platform. “It’s like having another set of eyes guiding you,” Gardner says. “How much we could mimic that drove the product’s behavior.”
On the app interface, users tap the screen to pan the camera up, down, and side to side. If the system detects something that’s about to move behind your car–like a pedestrian, biker, or another car–but isn’t quite in the field of vision, it sends an audible ping and a visual alert that looks like sonar ripples across the screen.
Getting people who aren’t used to checking a back-up camera accustomed to looking at Pearl’s app will be a hurdle. To make it easier, the company designed a phone mount. On Android phones, the app automatically opens when your car turns on; however, due to Apple’s restrictions it’s via push notification. Video launches as soon as you open the app and once you hit 10 mph, the app returns to the launch screen.
What Pearl shows is that an effective copilot can be had in the smartphones most of us already have in our pockets–no need for a complex platform like Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. In terms of extra features, Pearl doesn’t have parallel parking assist, and the company is hoping that the ease of installation and relative affordability compared to dealer-installed backup cameras (Gardner estimates that the average price for the hardware and installation is more than $1,000) is enough to convince customers of Pearl’s utility.
Now, for $500, we can all have an extra set of eyes behind us, even if you didn’t buy a car with all the bells and whistles out of the gate. Pearl is available for preorder now and shipping is expected in September.