Lidar does with light what radar does with radio waves. It sends out a beam of light and tracks the photons that bounce back to paint a digital picture of what lies ahead. In theory, it should be the ultimate tool for creating self-driving systems, but it has several drawbacks.
The first of them is cost. Lidar units that can see up to 200 meters ahead and have good horizontal and vertical resolution can cost $10,000 or more. Some early self-driving systems like the ones under development by Uber and Waymo use as many as 6 Lidar units. It’s easy to understand why customers might be reluctant to shell out $60,000 extra just to buy a car that drives itself.
Another black mark against Lidar is that it has difficulty penetrating haze, fog, and smoke. Radar has no such problems, which is one reason Tesla has refused to include Lidar in its full self driving hardware suite. Still, Teslas using Autopilot have a disturbing tendency to run into stationary objects like fire trucks, police cars, and highway barriers on occasion.
Current radar-based systems like Autopilot are programmed to ignore stationary objects. Otherwise, the cars would be going into full anchors aweigh, panic braking mode every few minutes — a situation that Lidar could help eliminate.
Bosch is a Tier One supplier to the global auto industry. That means it builds many of the components and subsystems used in today’s cars and trucks, from antilock brakes to fuel injection systems. In a recent press release, the company says, “Bosch is making long-range lidar sensors production-ready — the first lidar system that is suitable for automotive use. This laser-based distance measurement technology is indispensable for driving functions at SAE Levels 3 to 5. The new Bosch sensor will cover both long and close ranges — on highways and in the city. By exploiting economies of scale, Bosch wants to reduce the price for the sophisticated technology and render it suitable for the mass market.”
Only the parallel deployment of three sensor principles — cameras, radar, and Lidar — can insure that automated driving will offer maximum safety, the company says. “By filling the sensor gap, Bosch is making automated driving a viable possibility,” Bosch board member Harald Kroeger says.
The folks at ArsTechnica are skeptical, pointing out that the the company declined to provide it with any hard numbers on range, field of view, cost, or other characteristics. Still, having companies like Bosch working on Lidar suggests prices will come down and performance will go up as more systems are ordered for more cars by automakers.
“Lidar has the potential to substantially improve the performance of today’s [autonomous driving] systems. Radar may not be able to distinguish a fire truck parked next to the travel lane from one parked in the travel lane. But a Lidar sensor can. With help from Lidar, the next generation of [those] systems will better understand its environment and be able to avoid more crashes.” That’s a good thing for the future of autonomous automobiles.