What are LiDARs used for and why are they becoming more popular?

You have probably read or heard about LiDAR, especially in the latest electric cars presented. This technology, which is rare in our cars, should be more present in the coming years, and we will explain to you what it is.

The LiDAR of a Nio ET7 (in the middle of the picture) // Source: Nio

The advent of the electric car has pushed the race for the autonomous car into the background. Investments in factories are largely targeted the development of high-performance batteries and electric motors, especially because in Europe (but not only), in 2035, these same manufacturers will no longer be able to sell new thermal cars. And in the coming years, the same will happen everywhere, even in the most rebellious countries today.

If the electric car is likely to be widely democratised, this is less so in the case of the fully autonomous car. And for various reasons. In fact, in addition to the technological aspect that remains perfect, there are other factors that are considered, starting with infrastructure (Car2X connection, connected cities, etc.), but also the various regulations that govern the development of the autonomous car.

The legislator agreed that there was six levels of autonomy for a vehicle. Some regions allow this or that level to be used, some do not, and some are experimental. For example, level 3 autonomous driving has been allowed in Europe since 1er in September, but it doesn’t happen anywhere. To know more precisely the different levels of autonomy, do not hesitate to look at our dedicated article, but also at our infographic published below.

What is LiDAR?

As stated a little above, LiDAR technology is not really, or even will not, democratize our cars. For example, some production cars that can be equipped with it are the Mercedes EQS with the Drive Pilot option, or the first SUV and the first electric car from Lotus, the Eletre. We can also talk about the Nio ET7 and the new Volvo EX90.

But LiDAR is not new: we discovered it at CES in Las Vegas in 2016! The acronym LiDAR stands for Light Detection And Ranging“. It is a method of calculation that makes it possible to determine the distance between the sensor and the target obstacle. LiDAR uses a laser beam for detection, detection and tracking.

Volvo EX90 LiDAR
Volvo EX90 LiDAR

In other words, it is a type of large electronic component that is part of the sensor family. The sensor collects data on a physical parameter such as temperature, humidity, light, weight or even distance.

Knowing the speed of light, LiDAR can accurately calculate the distance of each object from the delay between the emission of the laser pulse and the return of the pulse. Every second, this system thus requires millions of points to accurately measure distance, where one can create a 3D matrix around him. This detailed cartography can provide information on the position, shape and behavior of objects or people in motion.

How does LiDAR work?

LiDAR sees everything, just like a camera, but its strength is that it also helps the car’s computer system. predict the behavior of objects and adjust the driving accordingly. Something that is not seen in other technologies today in our vehicles.

Typically, a radar provides constant distance and speed measurements, but its performance may be penalized a bit over timewhile the resolution is lower and can hardly map small details at long distances.

Along with the radar, there is also the camera, a technology that is often used in our modern cars, but this one relies heavily on powerful artificial intelligence and related software to translate the captured data into 3D interpretations . Environmental conditions and lighting can also affect the camera’s vision technology.

So the solution is called LiDAR, because this big box offers accurate 3D measurement data at short and long distances, even in difficult weather and lighting. LiDAR can also be combined with other sensory data to create the most accurate representation possible of static and moving objects in the environment.

What are the main advantages of a LiDAR for a car?

More than radars and cameras, LiDAR can quickly generate many measurements and be accurate to within a centimeter, it which requires a lot of computing power inside the car to manage and process all the data. LiDAR data can be more easily converted into 3D maps used to interpret the environment than images from cameras, which require a lot of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Using lasers instead of cameras means it is unaffected by changes in ambient light and works well in all low-light conditions. Another advantage is also the speed of data processing. LiDAR data is a direct measurement of distance. It does not need to be deciphered or translated, which allows for fast operation and reduced processing requirements.

The retractable LiDAR is on the roof of the new Lotus Eletre

Other fields of application of LiDAR

LiDAR is not only used in the automotive field, on the contrary, some sectors have been using it for a long time, such as the air field. There are three types:

  • atmosphere: it uses UV rays thanks to which it can detect changes in the upper atmosphere (nitrogen, oxygen concentrations, etc.), and provide information on the evolution of aerosols (dust, volcanic clouds, forest fires, and others)
  • topography: it uses infrared rays thanks to which it can reproduce maps of different terrestrial environments (hydrological networks, forests, urban areas, beaches, etc.)
  • Bathymetric: it uses infrared rays added to green rays to get data on the sea floor, mostly on beaches. The infrared ray detects the surface of the beach and the water, while the green ray crosses the body of water to contact the sea floor and thus determine the depth of the objects found (a wreck, a reef, etc.).

However, this type of LiDAR remains very expensive. For terrestrial detection, two types of LiDAR are favored, less expensive and as effective in their chosen field:

  • mobile: this is what cars use, the sensor works and it is combined with an inertial navigation system (like airborne) to compensate for parasitic movements.
  • Heals: the sensor is mounted on a tripod, it is used for the analysis of buildings or natural areas, outside and inside. You may have already found a road engineer with this type of measuring technology in particular.

But the future belongs to another type of LiDAR: solid state or solid-state LiDAR. They have no moving parts, which reduces their size and design. So their cost will be cheaper. Currently, manufacturers are implementing hybrid LiDARs, with few moving parts.

The importance of LiDAR for future self-driving cars

If the manufacturers are generally making good progress on this subject, despite the slight reduction due to the forced march of electricity, the legislator will have the last word. There are many more parameters that need to be taken into account and the level of autonomy of a car does not depend only on itself, but also the surrounding environment. Cities need to be connected to make traffic more fluid or even send information to autonomous cars to report a particular problem.

However, LiDAR will clearly remain the “heart” of the autonomous car of tomorrow, and as you are sure to know, especially if you look at some infotainment interfaces from some manufacturers, Digital technologies are not necessarily their favorite field.

Thus, some manufacturers delegate these activities to companies that specialize in new technologies. This is the case, for example, of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance that cooperates with Waymo, a company belonging to Google, not only for the technological aspect, but also for evaluating market opportunities and joint work to provide a commercial, legal and regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles in France and Japan.

For its part, Tesla absolutely does not believe in LiDAR or radar. Elon Musk believes that it is really possible to offer fully autonomous driving based only on cameras. To reduce the cost and complexity of its implementation. The future will tell us who is right, between manufacturers who rely on LiDARs, and those who prefer cameras alone.

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