Driverless cars aren’t mainstream, yet. But, new technology and evolving trends could make robotic driving as common as backup cameras are in new cars.
The main changes stem from the LiDAR sensors that give driverless cars the ability to “see.” The sensors, which rapidly bounce laser beams off its surroundings to get a clear picture of its environment, are evolving in many ways.
They’re smaller, cheaper, more durable, and better protected from the elements. Here’s a closer look at the trends that are helping engineers turn driverless cars into a reality for everyday consumers:
1. Sensor size shrinks
LiDAR systems are fairly new to the consumer car world, first surfacing around 2005 during a government-run defense competition, DARPA, that asked participants to build a self-driving car.
The LiDAR system made its debut at this competition as a huge, 100-pound disc-shaped, laser-shooting contraption strapped to the roof of a truck.
Today, systems are smaller. Velodyne, for example, has a system they call the “puck,” which is roughly the size of two hockey pucks stacked on top of each other.
Now, engineers from MIT and DARPA are working to reduce the size even further, ideally to a chip the size of a grain of rice.
2. LiDAR is becoming cheaper to create
The cost of LiDAR systems is also expected to decline – drastically.
Right now, a driverless car that relies on LiDAR sensors to maneuver around the streets costs about $75,000. That doesn’t include the cost of the car. At that price, robotic cars aren’t feasible for mainstream consumers.
However, several companies, including Google’s Waymo and Velodyne, one of the first to engineer LiDAR systems for cars, now have the cost down to $8,000.
And both companies expect that price to continue to drop. Velodyne recently released a statement saying they’re in the process of engineering a LiDAR system that could be mass produced for $50 a piece.
As costs come down, more engineers will have the ability to work with LiDAR systems.
3. Durability improves
Reliability and durability are crucial for LiDAR systems. The systems, which rely on a series of sensitive lasers to scan surroundings and steer the car, are often exposed to vibrations, shocks, wear and tear, unpredictable weather – you name it.
Protecting the “optical nerve center” of the LiDAR system is a priority, meaning the cases that house LiDAR sensors must be durable.
Engineers are testing new materials that can support and protect LiDAR sensors in different scenarios, and are trying more protective placement. Ford, for example, is placing LiDAR sensors in side mirrors as a way to encase and protect it.
4. Water damage issues are solved
One of the often-overlooked challenges in the post-design phase of LiDAR system is water vapor ingress into the sealed system. Regardless how well the system is designed and sealed water vapor will make its way through the materials and increase the potential for failure over time.
Since water vapor ingress is a given and can’t be stopped the solution many design engineers turn to is adding a desiccant to absorb the water before it condensates inside the assembly which can cause a number of problems. The water can blur the sensors’ ability to “see,” diminishing its accuracy and safety on the road. Water can also cause corrosion which could lead to a short circuit inside the system.
Due to space constraints and the need for something that can take shock without dusting more engineers are turning to PolySorb as a desiccant solution. As an injection molded desiccant that can either fit into a cavity or be a component of the internal assembly it becomes an efficient, at times invisible and seamless solution to absorb the water ingress before it creates a problem extending the service life and safety of the system.
The race is on to create a LiDAR system that takes driverless cars from sci-fi movies and test labs to driveways and street corners across world. To make that happen, engineers need to produce a LiDAR system that checks all of the boxes including the right size, price, durability, and environmental protection.