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What is LIDAR Technology and How Does it Improve Autonomous Driving?

Technology is ever-evolving and one of its relatively new incarnations is LIDAR, which stands for Laser Imaging, Detection, and Ranging.

LIDAR is essentially a 3-D laser scanning technology. It projects a laser beam to locate objects in its surrounding environment to determine distance, speed, and direction.

Recently, LIDAR has been gaining a lot of excitement in the tech industry. Self-driving cars are heavily relying on it to improve their driving. Companies like Apple have integrated the technology in their latest version of the iPad Pro. The upcoming iPhone 12 is rumoured to feature LIDAR as well.

LIDAR’s early rudimentary applications date back to the 1960s and 1970s when lasers were first being applied to aid meteorological measurements. It was expensive to build such a sensor back then and it wasn’t scalable.

But the technology has vastly improved through the decades and there are a couple of exciting new applications.

How does it help with autonomous driving?

A LIDAR sensor enables self-driving vehicles to have a 360-view. It’s the piece of equipment that is commonly seen on top of these vehicles.

The sensor quickly scans the surrounding environment and creates a 3-D map that the car can reference. Incoming cars, crossing pedestrians and other objects can be detected more accurately.

Self-driving cars don’t have a good track record yet when it comes to accurately perceiving the external environment, let alone a complex traffic situation. That’s why LIDAR is used in conjunction with cameras, radar-based sensors, and vehicle tracking systems.

With new technologies being integrated with online tracking systems and software for vehicle inventory management, self-driving cars are increasingly becoming smarter on the road. By creating sensory redundancies in the system, companies hope to make self-driving cars safer when they roll out in real-world settings.

A benefit for human drivers as well?

man driving the car

However, LIDAR is branching out into areas beyond autonomous driving. Car companies are looking to utilise the technology more in mainstream vehicles, with the goal of supporting driver safety.

For instance, the German automaker Bosch, revealed earlier this year a new long-range LIDAR sensor to improve their advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). Ultimately, the company intends to lower the price of adopting this technology so that it will be more accessible for the mass market.

Velodyne, a LIDAR technology company, is known for building sensors for self-driving cars. But now they are producing sensors that can also be attached to manually driven cars. Its recent device, Velabit, is one of the smallest sensors in the industry. This makes it very easy for automakers to integrate it into mass-produced vehicles.

Shining a light into the future

It’s an exciting time for LIDAR. The continued improvement of autonomous driving, as well as the rise of ADAS, will hasten the adoption of this technology.

We could potentially see safer roads and fewer accidents in the future. When these systems work well, they significantly reduce the likelihood of minor and major crashes. But this is not yet as consistent as companies and regulators would prefer.

For now, innovators still need to go through a few more roadblocks towards making safety the standard outcome.

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