The February 2023 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Cheap Lidar for Automatic Braking

Osram joins the race to enable inexpensive cars to meet future safety standards

2 min read
Cheap Lidar for Automatic Braking
Photo: Phantom Intelligence

A rotating roof-mounted lidar set can cost more than the car underneath it, but soon you’ll be able to get a less powerful—but still useful—unit for the price of a pair of shoes.

“The cost of of a lidar unit is coming down well under $100; one of the concepts I’m working with is a 2-by-8 array—16 photodiodes, with a range of 30 meters,” says Rajeev Thakur, a marketing manager for Osram Opto Semiconductors. The array is wider than it is high because horizontal resolution is what matters most for the intended application: avoiding a forward collision.

It’s a narrow application, one that at first will work well only in slow traffic. It can’t begin to let your car driver itself. But because new regulatory policies in Europe will grade new cars on this feature by 2018, this small array could find a big market.

Osram makes the laser and photoreceptor components from indium gallium arsenide semiconductors. Its partner, the startup Phantom Intelligence, has integrated them into the lidar set, which is about the size of a business card. The entire package is larger, but it can fit on the inside of the windshield, just behind the rear-view mirror.

The little array neither scans mechanically, like a roof-mounted tower, nor electronically, like the experimental setup DARPA unveiled last week. It just bounces infrared light off objects in front and notes the distance and the rate of change in distance.

“With this lidar unit I’m blasting out infrared with one single laser, and I can have an array of photodiodes much more cheaply made than an array of  [radar] antennas with fine resolution,” Thakur says. 

The laser peaks at a hefty 75 watts, but in 30-nanosecond pulses that together take up just 0.5 percent of transmission time, making the beam safe for the eyes of passersby.  

Osram and Phantom Intelligence are talking with potential customers about putting the unit in headlamps to save power. Headlamps are designed to let light through, while windshields carry special coatings to keep certain frequencies—like those in the infrared spectrum—out. True, dirt would tend to accumulate on the headlamp, but that problem can be solved, Thakur says.

Other companies, like Ibeo and TriLuminaare also pursuing the market for cheap automotive lidar. Reason: it’s about to become a mass-market product. In 2018 European safety regulators will start grading new cars on how well they can avoid colliding with a car just ahead of them in slow-moving traffic—precisely the kind that most tends to lull drivers into inattentiveness. Alhough no minimum grade will be mandatory, a good grade will constitute a big marketing incentive. Active-safety devices sell themselves, at least when the price is right.

The U.S. regulator, NHTSA, is reportedly working on a slightly more ambitious grading system for 2019, Thakur says. “They’re also looking for things like cross-traffic alerts,” he says. “You might need to combine sensors like lidar and radar.” Europe has even tougher targets on its industry road map for the year 2020, like recognizing children on the sidewalk as well as pedestrians on the roadway.

Electronic beam-scanning strategies that mimic those of rooftop rotators will come eventually. But the auto industry, famous for its long product development cycles, needs something simple to tide it over in the meantime. That way, the best won’t be the enemy of the good.

The Conversation (0)

Chinese Joint Venture Will Begin Mass-Producing an Autonomous Electric Car

With the Robo-01, Baidu and Chinese carmaker Geely aim for a fully self-driving car

4 min read
A black car sits against a white backdrop decorated with Chinese writing. The car’s doors are open, like a butterfly’s wings. Two charging stations are on the car’s left; two men stand on the right.

The Robo-01 autonomous electric car shows off its butterfly doors at a reveal to the media in Beijing, in June 2022.

Tingshu Wang/Reuters/Alamy

In October, a startup called Jidu Automotive, backed by Chinese AI giant Baidu and Chinese carmaker Geely, officially released an autonomous electric car, the Robo-01 Lunar Edition. In 2023, the car will go on sale.

At roughly US $55,000, the Robo-01 Lunar Edition is a limited edition, cobranded with China’s Lunar Exploration Project. It has two lidars, a 5-millimeter-wave radars, 12 ultrasonic sensors, and 12 high-definition cameras. It is the first vehicle to offer on-board, AI-assisted voice recognition, with voice response speeds within 700 milliseconds, thanks to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8295 chip.

Keep Reading ↓Show less