NEW YORK – Autoliv Inc. expects the introduction of its second-generation automotive night-vision system next year to significantly boost sales of the technology, while also offering better protection against pedestrian collisions.

Take rates of night-vision systems historically have been modest compared with other advanced features, with penetration in the U.S. lagging behind that in Europe and Japan.

Stockholm-based Autoliv and partner FLIR Systems Inc. of Goleta, CA, which ships 120,000 night-vision systems annually for numerous applications, predicts this will change after the supplier’s second-generation system debuts next year on an ’09 model.

Sales will soar to as many as 1 million units annually in five years, up from 20,000 currently, says Stuart Klapper, managing director-Autoliv Electronics Night Vision, declining to specify which model will be first to offer the new system.

The biggest impediment to higher sales currently is the steep, $2,200 average cost for the technology, which most commonly is offered only on certain high-end luxury vehicles. At present, night vision only is available in the U.S. on BMW 5-, 6- and 7-Series models and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class sedan.

Potential car customers, for example, recently ranked night vision fourth as a desired option in a recent J.D. Power & Associates survey of new-vehicle features, but dropped the technology to 18th when told of the price.

A major development in Autoliv’s technology will be a much-improved ability to automatically recognize pedestrians. It uses an infrared detector made by FLIR and a proprietary algorithm created by Autoliv engineers to improve the thermal-imaging sensitivity of the main camera.

As people and animals give off more heat than inanimate objects, such as trees and fire hydrants, the live objects appear to glow more brightly in the night-vision monitor. In addition, infrared can “see” three or four times further down the road than standard headlights.

With the hardware looking for heads, arms and legs and the software evaluating data for false warnings from light poles and tree stumps, Klapper says drivers typically will get a 4-second warning on the night-vision monitor of any living thing in the vehicle’s path.

If the supplier is right and night-vision sales increase, pedestrian fatalities could be reduced in the near future. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin., 64% of automotive-related pedestrian fatalities occur at night, yet only 25% of all driving is done after dark.

Currently, there are two different types of thermal imaging used in automotive night-vision systems.

Near-infrared technology, such as that used by Mercedes and on the Lexus LS sedan in Japan, actively illuminates the roadway in front and captures the reflected thermal radiation. The camera detects the portion of the infrared spectrum closest to visible light but requires additional infrared bulbs to assist the main detector.

Far-infrared imaging, which currently is used by BMW AG, passively detects thermal radiation from objects and surfaces ahead. The Honda Legend in Japan (Acura RL in the U.S.) also offers a far-infrared system, providing frontal visibility of about 900 ft. (91 m) with a 24-degree field of view – far beyond what human eyes can see with high-beam headlights.

Klapper claims Autoliv’s new far-infrared system, which also provides a 24-degree field of view vs. 36 degrees in current BMWs, is less expensive to make than the first-generation version.

Despite the more narrow view, a 24-degree system provides sufficient information to spot pedestrians and transmit a realistic image to drivers, he says, noting the new camera’s resolution is still 320 x 240 pixels.

The computer analyzes the image at 30 frames per second, he adds, with each new frame revealing whether the pixel silhouette is a person or some other object “with a good degree of confidence.” The recognition process continues even if the driver changes direction or the object alters its position.

The new software also enhances images and ignores background noise better than previous units.

The main objective for Autoliv is to give drivers as much warning as possible that a person or animal is in danger of being hit – and do so with enough margin to allow for stopping or evasive maneuvers.

Klapper says the company’s new night-vision system also can be designed with a switch that will allow drivers to turn off its automatic-warning feature, if desired. However, auto makers ultimately will decide whether they want buyers to have this option.