Wide angle substantially nondistorting mirror: Every passenger's side mirror carries a warning that objects “are closer than they appear” because the curved surface designed to give drivers a wider field of view ends up distorting distance. But U.S. regulations require the driver's side mirror to be flat because depth perception was judged to be more important than field of view at that location. The result is a blind spot just beyond the driver's left shoulder. While working on a way to give soccer-playing robots a 360-degree view, R. Andrew Hicks, a mathematician at Drexel University, figured out how a small mirror could reflect a wide view without distortion. That work inspired him to create a blind spot–free driver's side mirror.

After years of algorithm tweaking, Hicks came up with patent No. 8,180,606, which describes a driver's side mirror with a field of view of at least 45 degrees, as compared with current mirrors that reflect only 15 to 17 degrees.

Hicks's algorithm employs thousands of calculations to create a “weird wavy surface,” which bounces each ray of light toward the driver in just the right way, he says. The curves are subtle, however, and the mirror appears smooth. Manufacturers only recently developed the technology to shape this kind of free-form surface. Before companies roll out vehicles with the updated mirror, regulations will need to change, but the new accessory could debut as an aftermarket add-on in the next few years.