Low-Quality Lidar Keeps Self-Driving Cars in the Slow Lane


Would you be comfortable taking a ride in a self-driving car? If you’ve got hesitation, you’re not alone. According to a recent Gartner Consumer Trends in Automotive survey, 55 percent of the consumers it surveyed aren’t on board with letting technology takeover completely. However, for those with reservations, you may have some time to ease yourself into the idea. Lidar, a laser measurement tool which produces 3-D images, may be a lag in the deployment of fully autonomous vehicles.

What is Lidar?

Lidar, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging (and similar variants), isn’t new technology. In fact, it dates back to the 1960s. If you’ve ever seen the Google car roaming about with a coffee can-sized device on top of it, you’ve seen lidar. Its primary purpose is to create high-resolution maps. But, it also provides navigation information, as is the case with autonomous vehicles.

These sensors provide the self-driving vehicle with information regarding its surroundings. Current autonomous vehicles being tested on roadways are equipped with cheaper versions of lidar, which may not be capable of producing quality data at faster speeds. This could ultimately create a road-block for self-driving deployment.

Lidar Not Up to Speed

Many auto manufacturers expect to introduce fully autonomous cars as early as 2021. However, lidar sensors that are capable of providing quality data at interstate speeds can cost up to $80,000. Factor that into the expense of the vehicle, which will likely have other technological features, and the majority of consumers probably won’t be able to afford it.

Velodyne, a company that provides lidar sensors to Google’s Waymo and Ford, offers the technology in a range of these sensors. It’s priciest ($80,000), and most advanced, is called the HDL-64E. The sensor releases 64 laser beams, each separated by a .4-degree angle. Smaller angles between beams output higher-resolution images, according to MIT Technology Review.

On the other, less-expensive end of the spectrum, Velodyne’s smallest sensor has a price tag of $8,000. While more affordable in comparison to its highest quality sensor, it’s still a pretty expensive piece of hardware for mass-market production. Not to mention, the stark reduction in image quality the vehicle receives with a cheaper sensor.

“At 70 miles per hour, spotting an object at, say, 60 meters out provides two seconds to react. But when traveling at that speed, it can take 100 meters to slow to a stop,” Jamie Condliffe with MIT Technology Review reports. “A useful range of somewhere closer to 200 meters is a better target to shoot for to make autonomous cars truly safe.”

State of the Lidar Industry

So where does this leave the automotive industry? Many of the companies producing lidar sensors for autonomous vehicles are looking into ways to make the technology more affordable and ready for mass production.

Instead of using mechanical means to operate the sensor, some companies are testing solid-state lidar devices. These use small antennas to steer the beams electronically, as opposed to mechanically. This is easier to manufacture, making mass production more attainable. However, there are still a few concerns regarding the device’s integrity when driving at highway speeds.

Price Versus Quality

The problem with solid-state lidar devices circles back to image quality. Automotive News announced recently that Audi is incorporating a lidar sensor from Valeo, a French auto technology supplier, in the company’s new A8 model. The A8 is expected to be the first self-driving vehicle sporting the technology at mass production. However, the sensor can only produce quality images at speeds less than 37 mph.

According to Automotive News, industry insiders say lidar won’t be ready for mass production until the price drops significantly—$250 per sensor, at least.

So the trade-off remains high price tag for safer lidar performance versus low cost and low quality. Neither option proves to be viable for mass production. At some point, though, the price point for a higher quality lidar unit is expected to greatly reduce as technology improves.

As the reality of self-driving vehicles nears, stay up-to-date with the latest information regarding autonomous technology at Glass.com.

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