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BMW's Night Vision

It's not every day you drive along a dark, winding road at night, actually willing a kangaroo to hop out in front of you. But where else could we fully test BMW's freaky, futuristic Night Vision system?

We had to discount taking it onto a battlefield against similarly equipped tanks, because we don't have the Top Gear TV show's budget.

Hunting a group of C-grade actors pretending to be commandos through a jungle, Predator-style, was discounted for similar reasons.

The system, a $4000 option on the 5, 6 and 7 Series, uses a thermal-imaging camera to beam hot and steamy footage of the road ahead, some 300m ahead, in fact, to the display screen in the middle of the dash.

It works stunningly well, but can also be supremely distracting if you keep it on while driving around town.

The really fascinating stuff is all the useless information Night Vision provides you with.

Like how much heat comes out of the diff on a four-wheel drive, the fact that some people are, literally, hotter than others, and some have really hot legs, and that you can see the exhaust system glowing on every car in front of you.

In fact, every vehicle looks like it's had one of those hoony blue downlights installed.

You can also determine, among the parked cars, which ones have been driven most recently.

It really does make you feel like the Predator, if the Predator got a job in a bank, started wearing a suit and bought a posh car.

The information you're presented with verges on overload, and watching the screen did make two passengers feel physically ill.

The fact that, being a bit of a geek, I couldn't take my eyes off the screen was also bordering on dangerous. But the Night Vision system really comes into its own when you get out of town and there's suddenly a lot less heat to see on the screen, allowing you to look at the road, like you're supposed to.

This means your eyes are drawn to the Night Vision screen only when something,  a cyclist, a kangaroo, a particularly keen hitch-hiker poping up in the distance.

The advantage in this setting is obvious, as the thermal-imaging camera picks up these hot items before the naked eye can.

As BMW helpfully points out, about 45 per cent of fatal road accidents occur at night, even though more than two-thirds of all driving is done during the day.

And it's a fair bet that our headlight-loving fauna is involved in a disturbing number of those night-time incidents.

With that in mind, $4000 doesn't seem like a lotto spend. Even if it saves you only once, it'sa great investment.

What is a slight concern is that, until the technology becomes as common as satnav, you're going to have a lot of rich toy boys driving around showing off their Night Vision to their mates, barely having their eyes on the road.

The system we tested was installed in a 550i that was so heavily laden with gadgetry it made the space shuttle look like the Wright Brothers' little plane.

When we weren't oohing and aahing over the infra-red images, we did notice that it was a fine executive express with plenty of grunt, sweet steering and a smooth ride.

If I could just find that $163,900 I lost down the back of the couch (plus $4000 for Night Vision), I'd think about buying one.


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