Light-Colored Cars May Be Safer In Our Autonomous Future But Dark Cars Aren't Going Away

Illustration for article titled Light-Colored Cars May Be Safer In Our Autonomous Future But Dark Cars Aren't Going Away

You know how when you transform yourself into a cat and go hunting at night, it’s easier to catch a light-colored pigeon than it is, say, a crow? Of course you do. Unsurprisingly, autonomous cars have similar issues spotting dark-colored vehicles, which could make dark-colored cars more challenging for a future with autonomous cars.


Some articles are reporting this as something along the lines of self-driving cars will likely be light-colored when they start to arrive, but this is sort of deceptive. The issue isn’t with the autonomous cars themselves, it’s with the car’s sensors and their ability to detect dark-colored vehicles (or, really, any objects) that are more likely to absorb reflected laser light from LIDAR systems.

According to global marketing manager for Axalta Coating Systems Nancy Lockhart,

“... we know that highly reflective colors are more easily detectable by LiDAR systems.”

Of course, everyone knows that important and self-important people will want imposing black autonomous vehicles at some point, so research is being undertaken to make this possible, based on technology developed by the vegetables we call eggplants:

“The world’s largest producer of vehicle coatings, PPG Industries Inc., is engineering a paint that allows the near-infrared light emitted by lasers to pass through a dark car’s exterior layer and rebound off a reflective undercoat—making it visible to sensors. PPG got the idea from the purple eggplant, which uses a similar trick on farms to keep cool on hot days.”

An eggplant was not available for comment.

Of course, even if such paint is developed, it won’t help autonomous vehicles to more readily detect the millions and millions of dark-colored cars already out on the street.


Clearly, LIDAR recognition will have to be just one in a redundant array of sensor systems and active, radio-based vehicle communication systems that allows for AVs to know what’s around them via multiple, overlapping methods.

Articles like USA Today’s “Why self-driving cars will likely be light-colored” are, really, sort of deceptive. The truth is paint is going to get more complex when robotic sensors will have to “see” it, and that challenge is greater for some colors more than others.


That doesn’t mean all AVs will be light colored, and it doesn’t address existing cars. The burden is still on AV developers to make vehicles that don’t have massive exceptions like “can’t see black cars.”

Dark cars aren’t going away, no matter if a robot or a person is behind the wheel, so don’t worry.

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus, 2020 Changli EV • Not-so-running: 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!:


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For what it’s worth, light and brightly colored cars are easier for humans to see, too. Ever notice how dark grey cars without their lights on disappear in moderate rain?