NEW YORK – When the ’11 Audi A8 hits the market later this year, it will be the latest in a small fleet of luxury models to offer night vision, mostly as a pricey option.

The exclusive club includes the BMW 5- and 7-Series, Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and Lexus LS 460.

In addition, Mercedes-Benz V12 models offer Robert Bosch GmbH’s near-infrared night-vision system as standard equipment. Several other Mercedes models have Bosch night vision, including the ’11 E-Class, which will offer it as an option.

There are about 200,000 vehicles worldwide equipped with night vision, says Stuart Klapper, managing director-Autoliv Electronics Night Vision, who predicts the market for the active safety system will triple by 2014.

Klapper sees the night-vision retail market, which accounts for about $150 million in revenues now, growing to about $500 million by 2015, “based on my current understanding of OEM future plans.”

One reason for growth is the cost of manufacturing night-vision cameras has fallen 50% in the last five years, Klapper says, and “will continue to come down.”

Night vision illuminates the road up to three times the distance provided by low-beam headlights. New systems from Autoliv and Bosch also have enhanced ability to illuminate pedestrians who otherwise might be invisible.

Selling night vision in the U.S. has been tough sledding since Cadillac introduced it as an option on ’00 models and dropped it after ’05, selling a minuscule 15,000 units in total. Hummer H1 and H2 units offered an optional dealer-installed Raytheon Co. system starting with the ’03 model year, dropping it in ’06.

It's an altogether different situation in Germany, where the take rate is 40% on models that offer a night-vision option, Klapper says. In China, it's even higher.

Much of that is due to the nature of the U.S. market, where most cars are purchased off the dealer’s lot. In Europe, where a far higher percentage of custom-ordered cars are sold, buyers are willing to wait weeks for delivery of their purchase.

At present, BMW 7-Series and 5-Series models offer the Autoliv night-vision system as a $2,600 option, while the Rolls-Royce Ghost includes it as part of a $10,000 driver-assistance systems package. The Honda Legend offers night vision exclusively in the Japanese market.

Mercedes, which uses the Night Vision Plus near-infrared system from Bosch, sells it as standard equipment on cars equipped with V-12 engines: the S600, S65, CL65 and CL600. It is optional, at $1,740, on the S550, S400 and S63.

Night vision is included with a $3,430 option package for the CL550 and as a $2,160 stand-alone option with the CL63. The feature is optionally available in the ’10 E350 sedan and wagon and with the Bluetec diesel E550 and E63 at $1,750.

Both the Autoliv and Bosch systems produce black and white images. Technical limitations currently preclude a color display, because light in the infrared range prevents a camera from detecting natural color. “Artificial coloring would not be realistic,” a Bosch spokesperson says.

“More work is needed to allow the use of color,” Klapper says, noting color night-vision images can be confusing to a driver.

In the next-generation Autoliv system a “safety-domain controller “ will integrate inputs from visible cameras, sensors, peripheral-impact sensors and radars on the vehicle to assess the driving situation.

Company engineers have written sophisticated algorithms to analyze the inputs, along with vehicle data, such as speed, yaw rate and temperature, to help the vehicle react to potentially dangerous situations on dark roads.

Night driving is considered to be the most perilous period for motorists, but no data is available at this time to document how effective night vision is in reducing accidents, injuries and deaths after dark.

However, the fact night vision is available in lower-priced Mercedes and BMW models may be a sign the feature is starting to trickle down to less-expensive segments. Both Autoliv and Bosch decline to reveal future OEM applications.