Aaron Widmar
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How Does Car Camouflage Prevent Spy Shots During Testing?

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BMW prototype in black and white camouflage car wrap spy shot

Ever seen a pre-production vehicle in testing with black-and-white camouflage like this?
Photo: Wikimedia via CC

If you’ve ever seen that black-and-white, swirled camouflage wrap on vehicles being test driven–and photographed in spy shots–you’ve probably wondered how the checkerboard patterns work. Do they actually camouflage vehicles, or do they do the opposite and draw attention to the model? Wouldn’t a normal-looking car draw less attention on the road than one resembling a zebra?

Why the Camo Design?

Contrary to what it sounds like, the purpose of these printed patterns aren’t to camouflage the car itself but rather the specific details of the model–its lines, curves, etc. That way, when the vehicle is revealed and ready for production, its design is a surprise. This helps prevent backlash over unfinished prototype appearances and tipping off competitors. Thus, the details about the model are more secretive than the fact the vehicle is out being tested.

That’s why automakers use an approach that seems to scream, “Look at me! I’m a special prototype you shouldn’t be seeing!”

How Does the Wrap Work?

Most automakers rely on a vinyl application with black-and-white designs (though some use grey or blue) to hide the shape of their vehicle-in-testing (called a “mule”). Instead of a thin plastic film, polyester coats are occasionally used for their durability and light weight. Such wraps are usually black because the shade absorbs infrared light from cameras’ auto-focus and makes capturing a clear image difficult (even ensuring the photos will be somewhat blurry is beneficial). That’s why black wraps work especially well at night.

The psychedelic, swirled designs are carefully applied to a vehicle’s body to hide–and virtually erase–any defining character lines and key attributes, which is why you’ll sometimes see only half-covered models being tested. When photographed, the patterns essentially “flatten” the vehicle’s shape, masking the contours so the wrap can’t be removed by image-rendering software. However, some photographers contend that the high-contrast black and white designs are actually easier for a camera to focus on.

Adding fake body panels and foam/bubble wrap shapes underneath the wrap distort the shape of the vehicle too, as do dummy headlamps when testing during the day. This is all done by engineers specially tasked by the automaker for each new model.

Sources: Autoblog & Auto Guide