Driverless Vehicles: LIDAR Technology Explained

A decade ago, a self-driving vehicle was virtually unheard of. Today, companies such as Google and Tesla are logging millions of miles with their driverless cars. Creating something of this magnitude may seem impossible. Without a driver, how are vehicles supposed to see other vehicles?

This is done through the use of a technology called Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR). LIDAR is most commonly used in science applications. It can examine the surface of the Earth and help scientists analyze topography in order to plan for weather-related events.

So how is this technology applied in the automotive industry? LIDAR is a method of remote sensing that uses lasers and light beams – typically mounted on the roof of the vehicles – to create 3D maps. These maps help driverless vehicles “see” their surrounding environment without the need for a driver.

These self-driving vehicles contain transistors and chips that fire lasers at high speeds. In mere seconds, it can be determined where other cars and objects are located in relation to the car. With LIDAR – combined with software and special cameras – vehicles can drive in tandem with other vehicles without causing accidents. LIDAR is the standard for autonomous vehicle detection systems.

Instead of silicon – which is what most computers are made of, LIDAR relies on a semiconductor called gallium nitride. Gallium nitride is fast and energy-efficient, making it perfect for autonomous vehicles. It can even operate as much as 1,000 times faster than silicon.

One vehicle that does not use LIDAR for autonomous driving features is Tesla. Instead, Tesla uses cameras and radar systems, which aren’t as accurate as LIDAR for detecting certain road hazards/conditions due to the lack of detail they provide. For example, a bright sky can prevent the Tesla detection from “seeing” a white vehicle.

Given that LIDAR is such a beneficial component of a driverless car, why wouldn’t a company use it? Cost may be the primary reason. LIDAR systems originally cost tens of thousands of dollars. That’s how much Google paid to have the system put into their first cars. However, the cost has dropped tremendously since then.

Startup companies have been formed to help bring the cost down. In fact, a company called Quanergy Systems is hoping to create a LIDAR system that cost as little as $250. As the cost of LIDAR technology drops, more manufacturers are expected to develop self-driving vehicles.

So, does this signal the end of car accidents? No, not for the immediate future as driverless vehicle technology will be gradually phased into the automobile market. In the interim, car accidents will unfortunately continue to be a problem on America’s roadways.

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