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LIDAR Hits Several Developmental Milestones for Driverless Cars

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【Summary】In order to use LIDAR systems on autonomous cars that will one day become the norm for private and public transportation, the components have to be more cost effective, compact and user-friendly.

Original Michael Cheng    Dec 24, 2016 9:30 AM PT

Mimicking the capabilities of human drivers is no easy task. Although today's SAE L1, manually driven vehicles are highly prone to human error, replacing them with cutting-edge algorithms and sensors requires the use of cameras, ultrasonic sensors, radar and LIDAR. All of these components work together to help the car avoid obstacles, pedestrians and other vessels on open roads.

LIDAR, which stands for LIght Detection and Ranging, has been around for almost 50 years. It was originally used in a limited manner for surveying in law enforcement, mining and wind farming sectors. Now they are being utilized in self-driving cars to improve detection and safety.

This shift to applying the technology in mass commercial markets come with several challenges for developers. In order to use LIDAR systems on autonomous cars that will one day become the norm for private and public transportation, the components have to be more cost effective, compact and user-friendly.

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Mechanisms and Size Differentials 

LIDAR is currently going through a very rapid developmental phase. The technology works by sending out laser pulses to its surroundings. The surfaces and objects the laser hits creates a "point" that allows the system to gauge the distance and physical characteristics of the target, including color and opacity. Today's LIDAR arrays shoot out several lasers per second to provide a clear, 3D depiction of the vehicle's environment. Compared to GPS (with roughly two meters of accuracy), the unit boasts +/- two-centimeter accuracy during operation. It also leverages shorter wavelength spectrums than radar and offers higher reflective rates on small objects that radar-based systems may miss.

In the early stages of development, most autonomous car prototypes relied on bulky LIDAR devices mounted on top of vehicles. This was one way drivers could differentiate a driverless car from a human-powered vessel. But like the smartphone antenna that once stuck out like a sore thumb, LIDAR manufacturers are making their units more compact and discreet. Some groups, like Velodyne, are even experimenting with solid-state designs without moving parts for long-term use (less maintenance, higher tolerance to shock and vibration).

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Key Players and Cost

There are a handful of companies competing in the LIDAR manufacturing space, with the intention of supplying such units to automakers interested in manufacturing driverless cars. Germany-based Osram Opto Semiconductors is one of those groups leading the pack with a LIDAR chipset to be released with a $50 (in volume) price point. Delphi and ZF are in the business of shrinking LIDAR units, down to the size of a tiny silicon chip. This could make mounted LIDAR designs obsolete and allow sensors to be moved inside or around the vehicle. Lastly, Innoviz is closing the price wars gap with a unit capable of detection at 200 meters and an affordable $100 price tag.

"With self-driving cars under development by a huge number of companies, and applications ranging from private ownership to ride-sharing to public transit, the need for lidar arrays will be an upward trend for many years," said Wayne Cunningham from Road Show by CNET.  

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