Self driving cars are coming. No one is really sure how long it will take for the technology to advance enough that we have completely autonomous vehicles. However, it’s very likely we will get there eventually. Volvo recently announced something that will see the self-driving goal take another step forward.
In a press release, Volvo announced the inclusion of LiDAR on their next generation of cars. That stands for Light Direction and Ranging. In layman’s terms, it’s a super fancy camera that helps self-driving cars determine what is around them.
Here’s a more technical explanation, if you prefer, from Jalopnik:
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.
LiDAR is more advanced than current camera and radar systems used on cars with autonomous features. If you’re wondering why Volvo is only switching now (and are, so far, the only company to announce using LiDAR), the answer it twofold. First, the technology is still fairly expensive. It would cause the price of new cars to spike dramatically. Second, the technology is ugly. Here’s an example, from Waymo.
Nobody wants to buy a car with that hideous contraption on top. But that’s where the bulk of the LiDAR tech resides.
Volvo is partnering with a Florida company called Luminar, with the goal to make LiDAR technology cheap and smaller. If successful, they will be able to integrate into their vehicles without it looking like a giant wart. The example image from their press release, though, leaves something to be desire. A single backwards- or forward-facing LiDAR won’t provide a 360-degree view like a system on the roof does.
Volvo hopes this is the path to making their cars up to Level 3 autonomy. At that level, they are able to drive with no human interaction as long as they stay within certain geo-fenced areas. That means approved highways, not jaunting around the city. However if successful, Volvo would have a step up over current autonomous systems, which are typically Level 2. They still require an attentive driver, ready to take over at any moment.
Volvo says they plan to start including LiDAR in their models in 2022.