Four Challenges for LiDAR on the Road to Autonomous Vehicles: Page 2 of 2

Stigmas around fatal autonomous vehicle crashes aren't the biggest challenge for the nascent automotive LiDAR industry. Industry representatives weigh in on the future of light detecting and ranging technology for driverless cars.

“Most any LiDAR can see at 100, 200, 300 meters,” he said. “Can you see that dark object? Can you get some detections off a dark object? It’s not just a matter of reputed range, but range at what reflectivity? While you’re able to see something very dark and very far away, how about something very bright and very close simultaneously?”

3. LiDAR Needs Robustness

“It comes down to vibration and shock, wear and tear, cleaning—all the aspects that we see on our cars,” said Jada Smith, vice president of engineering and external affairs at Aptiv, the autonomous vehicle spinoff of Delphi Technologies. “LiDAR systems have to be able to withstand that. We need perfection in the algorithms. We have to be confident that the use cases are going to be supported time and time again.”

Velodyne’s Eggert said that after years of designing LiDAR for R&D use, automotive grade reliability is comparatively new. “We’ve got a lot of history with our sensors on the road, some of them running 24 hours a day. Caterpillar has mining trucks [with Velodyne sensors] in Australia that get shot with a water hose at the end of the day.”

Ouster’s Pacala said reliability “...is pure engineering and it’s going to be solved. We’re designing our sensors for a 10-year lifetime, and I know we’re going to hit that.”

4. LiDAR Needs Better Safety and Edge Cases

While LiDAR may not have been responsible for the recent Uber incident, it does come with potentially fatal flaws that need to be corrected: 

  • Bright sun against a white background 
  • A blizzard that causes whiteout conditions
  • Early morning fog

These are just a few of the cases that LiDAR must learn to read. Then there’s the filthy black car to consider. “It’s virtually invisible,” said Aptiv’s Smith. “You start adding weather elements, whether it's wet snow or heavy rain, and you create challenges where the LiDAR just isn’t the right tool.”

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She continued, “We’re big believers in fusion, having the cameras, having the radars, and then bringing it all together. When you think about a car that drives itself, it needs all the senses. With LiDARs, there are challenges, but they are offset by bringing in these other sensors.”

Jim Schwyn, CTO of automotive supplier Valeo North America, said he keeps a towel in his car to wipe grime that collects on the lens of his rear-view camera. “What if the LiDAR is dirty? Are we in a situation where we are going to take the gasoline tank from a car and replace it with a windshield washer reservoir to be able to keep these things clean?”

Smith said that the safety of LiDAR-enabled autonomous systems involves more than how many miles of testing it has logged. “We have to be confident it has passed a gauntlet of tests, whether that’s actual use cases or simulated use cases. It’s a matter of what scenarios have been accomplished successfully before we put something out there.”

Alan Adler is a Michigan-based news, feature, and technical writer for a variety of outlets following a 20-year career in domestic and international communications at General Motors. He is a former reporter and editor at The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. Alan writes about technology, autonomous and electrified vehicles, transportation, sports, real estate development, and other subjects.

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