Is LiDAR Winning the Autonomous Car Race?

  • Posted on Jun 2, 2018

Camera technology or laser technology? The current debate surrounding self-driving cars centers on which technology will win the race to create safe, reliable autonomous transportation. Several states have enacted laws for autonomous cars (Nevada, California, Florida, Michigan, Hawaii, Washington, Texas and Tennessee and automakers are working furiously to get ready for expanding acceptance of driverless cars.

But are the streets of America ready for driverless cars? Yes and no. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) [add link] adopted the Society of Automotive Engineers’ five levels describing automated driving systems:

Level 0: The human driver is in complete control.
Level 1: Most operations are driver-controlled, but some specific functions (steering, accelerating, parking) can be done automatically by the car.
Level 2: The driver allows the car the take over some portion of the car’s operation, such as steering and speeding/accelerating, but the driver must always be ready to take back control.
Level 3: Drivers are necessary in Level 3, but can allow the car to take over under certain driving and traffic conditions. The driver does not need to monitor the car’s activity and with the same level of scrutiny.
Level 4: This is the fully autonomous level where the car performs all safety-critical driving functions and monitors roadway conditions the entire trip. Any limit to the car’s ability to perform these functions is limited by its operational design.
Level 5: The fully autonomous car acts like a human in every driving scenario.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk revolutionized the electric car market with the gorgeously sleek Tesla 3 sedan. With an all-electric range of 220 – 310 miles, the Tesla used an array of cameras for driving and parking assistance. But revolutionizing the electric car market wasn’t enough for Musk, who has grand ambitions to make reusable space rockets that can take humans to Mars. Newer models of Tesla cars will have eight cameras providing 360-degree visibility around the vehicle with a range of up to 250 meters. These cameras, various sensors and radar are Tesla’s game plan for the fully autonomous car, meaning they won’t require human input to operate.

But cameras aren’t the only self-driving technology game in town. Google is focusing its self-driving car efforts on LiDAR – a laser system that operates on the same principal as radar. LiDAR was first used to measure clouds but it really came into focus when a LiDAR system was used in 1971 by the Apollo 15 crew to map the surface of the moon.

LiDAR scanners can provide a 360-degree view of what’s happening around the car and even around corners, giving it a distinct technological advantage. Companies transforming the automotive LiDAR market are Germany’s Continental AG, LeddarTech, Quanergy Systems Inc. and Velodyne LiDAR.

The focus on safety has intensified since a tragic fatal crash involving a self-driving Uber car in Tempe, Arizona recently. Software that makes the car run smoothly can cause a false reading and cause the system to ignore certain objects. Unfortunately, a woman died because the software misidentified her in the dark. Future autonomous car technology will focus on the balance between the primary need for human safety and the practical need for rider comfort.

As autonomous vehicles, industrial equipment/machinery and 3D mapping and surveillance flourish, the need for sophisticated LiDAR technology expands.

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