From cameras to radar and GPS to ultrasonic sensors, today’s autonomous vehicles use a range of technologies to navigate the world around them. However, LiDAR generally hasn’t been among them due to its high cost. But that could be about to change with Volvo today announcing LiDAR technology from Luminar will be available in its next generation of production vehicles from 2022.
LiDAR works by emitting sort pulses of laser light millions of times per second, determining the distance to surrounding objects and building a live 3D map of the environment based on light reflected back. This type of technology has enabled Ford’s autonomous vehicles to navigate in the snow and in the dark, while Toyota is also using LiDAR tech in the development of its next-generation autonomous vehicles.
It does have its detractors, however, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk who has described the tech as a “fool’s errand” and a set of “expensive sensors that are unnecessary.”
In any case, Volvo sees LiDAR as key in developing safe, self-driving vehicles. The technology was a part of the mix for the fleets of autonomous XC90 SUVs it developed in partnership with Uber, and now it is looking to apply it to future production vehicles for everyday folk. Luminar hopes this move from Volvo will lead to the economies of scale required for more widespread adoption of the technology.
From 2022, Volvo will start offering LiDAR from the Silicon Valley startup in cars based on Volvo’s next-gen SPA 2 modular architecture, but not for the purposes of fully autonomous driving, at least to begin with. Customers will be able to opt in to a Highway Pilot feature, that will use the rooftop-integrated LiDAR system to navigate highways, but only in specific areas and conditions that it has been proven safe to operate.
“Soon, your Volvo will be able to drive autonomously on highways when the car determines it is safe to do so,” says Henrik Green, chief technology officer at Volvo Cars. “At that point, your Volvo takes responsibility for the driving and you can relax, take your eyes off the road and your hands off the wheel. Over time, updates over the air will expand the areas in which the car can drive itself. For us, a safe introduction of autonomy is a gradual introduction.”
Luminar’s LiDAR will work with other onboard sensors, cameras and software to control the Highway Pilot feature in Volvo’s forthcoming cars, but the pair are also investigating how it could play a role in other driver-assist systems. According to Volvo, there is potential to equip all SPA2-based cars with LiDAR as standard.
“Autonomous drive has the potential to be one of the most lifesaving technologies in history, if introduced responsibly and safely,” says Henrik Green, chief technology officer at Volvo Cars. “Providing our future cars with the vision they require to make safe decisions is an important step in that direction.”
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