Autonomous cars will need to see the world, just like we human drivers do occasionally when we glance up from our phones to peek out the big window up front with the wipers. Currently, all production cars with semi-autonomous features (remember, there are no completely self-driving cars for sale today) use visible light cameras and a lot of computing power to process the images. Other technologies, like LiDAR (Light Direction and Ranging) exist and have been used on prototype AVs, but so far never on a production car. It looks like Volvo is planning to change that.
LiDAR is interesting technology; just in case you forgot what it’s all about, let me remind you with quotes from our rundown of autonomous car sensing tech:
Lidar uses low-intensity, non-harmful, and invisible (to our meaty eyes) laser beams, which are pulsed at a target (or, in the case of most autonomous cars, all around, in a full 360° dome) and the reflected pulses are measured for return time and wavelength to compute the distance of the object from the sender.
In practice, lidar can produce some very detailed, high-resolution visualizations of the environment around a self-driving car. You can see what this looks like above there.
Impressive, right? The lidar is often detailed enough to make out different surface textures and fairly small details on passing cars, and even things like potholes and manhole covers in the road.
LiDAR hasn’t been used on production vehicles for two main reasons: first, the technology is very expensive, and, perhaps even more importantly, it’s really hard to sell cars with big, clunky-looking domes on their roofs.
Volvo has invested in a Florida-based company called Luminar that appears to have developed LiDAR cheap enough and small enough to be integrated into a production vehicle.
The LiDAR housing Volvo is showing with their press release certainly is smaller than any LiDAR setup I’ve seen, though it doesn’t appear to be capable of sensing a full 360 degrees; perhaps there’s a matching unit at the rear, and combined they get an all-around view of the car?
Volvo’s stated goal is to use the system to implement what would be effectively Level 3 autonomy: no human intervention needed, but only within specific geo-fenced areas, which, in Volvo’s case, would be highways, “verified to be safe for individual geographic locations and conditions.”
Volvo is calling this Highway Pilot, and would have a big advantage over current Level 2 systems that require the driver to be ready to take over at a moment’s notice, something humans are so notoriously bad at, I devoted a whole chapter to it in my book.
Volvo plans to start producing cars with this LiDAR technology integrated in 2022, as part of their upcoming SP 2 modular vehicle architecture.
More sensors are always better for autonomous vehicles, and LiDAR offers a lot of great potential. This could be a big breakthrough for what has always been an expensive and bulky technology, so I’m curious to see how well this all plays out.
CORRECTION: Okay, okay, cars have had LiDAR before. The Chrysler 300, and Audis A8, Q8, A7, A6—so, yeah, sorry about that. Still, this will be the first use for an attempt at Level 4 autonomy.