LiDAR in Autonomous Vehicles

July 18, 2023

Today’s advanced driver assistance systems take advantage of AI-spiked cameras and radar or sonar systems, but most manufacturers have been waiting for advances in machine vision technology to go one step further into autonomous self-driving cars. Today, that technology is ready to roll out. We call it LiDAR: Light detection and ranging.  LIDAR in autonomous vehicles can create a 3D understanding of the environment of the LiDAR systems, providing a self-driving car with a dynamic, highly accurate map of anything within 400 meters. 

Understanding LiDAR

LiDAR works by sending out laser pulses that reach a target, then bounce back to where a LiDAR sensor measures the time it took for the round trip. This enables the LiDAR system to create a point map that gives the exact location of everything within the reach of the laser beam. While the reach depends on the laser type used, those used in autonomous cars can now provide accurate data on objects up to 400 meters distance. Since LiDAR systems use laser light from a moving source on the car to ‘see’, the technology is not dependent on ambient light and can function just as well at night as during the day. 

LiDAR is used in more than just self-driving cars. It has become important in land surveying, forestry and farming, and mining applications. LiDAR technology was used to discover the topology of Mars, and is being used today in a program studying the distances between the surfaces of the moon and earth. It can provide soil profiling, forest canopy measurements, and even cloud profiling. 

LiDAR in Autonomous Vehicles

Ten years ago, LiDAR was expensive and clunky, but that didn’t stop autonomous driving pioneers from incorporating it into their prototypes. Google designed a car with a $70,000 LiDAR system sitting right on top of the vehicle, and ran a series of very successful tests in Mountain View, California and around the U.S. There was just one problem: tacking an extra $70,000 bill onto an already expensive car leads to something that is simply not practical for anything besides research. 

Today, Waymo manufactures self-driving cars using what they learned from those original experiments, and each of these cars is fitted with a similar LiDAR system. The design has been improved over the years, but the most glaring change is a very promising one: advances in technology have enabled Waymo to bring the cost of the LiDAR system down 90%. 

Now LiDAR technology is available to any manufacturer of LiDAR cars, and our LiDAR optical design specialists can help you come up with a LiDAR system that meets your budget and requirements. Contact us for more information or to chat with one of our engineers.

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