Makers of light detection and ranging sensors, or LiDAR, have turned to big trucks and commercial vehicles as a prime market for their technology, which enables autonomous driving.
Some are already testing LiDAR systems for semi-tractor combos, which because of their weight and size present a host of problems not present in the self-driving passenger cars that automakers are developing.
“There is definitely a market for medium- and heavy-duty trucks,” said Jim Schwyn, chief technology officer for automotive supplier Valeo North America. “It’s a question of working with the [manufacturers] to optimize the system and the cost to make all that work together.”
Like most advanced technology, whether powertrain or advanced safety, truck makers are sensitive to anything that affects their total cost of operation. They want to know what LiDAR saves financially before investing. The answer may not be known for years, especially as startup companies developing LiDAR systems disagree on which system will prevail.
LiDAR is a sensing technology similar to radar. But it offers higher resolution images because the wavelength of light is about 100,000 times smaller than radio wavelengths. A LiDAR system transmits a beam of light and measures the returning signal when the light reflects off an object. The time that takes provides a direct measurement of the distance to the object. Measuring how far away each pixel is from the emitting device as well as the direction to the pixel creates a 3D model of the world around the sensor. As many as 2.5 million bits of data analyzed per second create so-called point clouds.
Most LiDAR systems being tested on autonomous vehicles use lasers, lenses and external receivers. They are mechanically spun around while being bounced up and down.
“We’ve focused on making sure this works for Class 6-8 vehicles,” said Angus Pacala, co-founder and chief executive of Ouster, a San Francisco-based startup that claims to sell the smallest working LiDAR system on the market. “Traditional camera-based safety systems are challenging on big vehicles because you need so many cameras to cover the field of view. With a 360-degree LiDAR sensor, you can put many fewer [cameras] on a vehicle and still get the full coverage that you need.”
Pacala said an Ouster LiDAR system is currently being tested on a five-axle, single trailer truck. “These are 80,000-pound vehicles. The shock and vibration for a vehicle like that is totally different than a car.”
Blackmore Sensors and Analytics, a Bozeman, Mont., startup whose investors include the venture arms of Toyota and BMW, uses a longer nanometer wavelength that improves resolution. It can discern mist above a swimming pool from the water itself. Blackmore is pushing to replace mechanical LiDAR systems with integrated microchips that can be mass produced using the same technology that develops the silicon-based microprocessors in computers.
Big rigs potentially need to be able to see more than four car lengths ahead.
“These are massive vehicles. They take a long time to stop,” said Jim Curry, vice president of product at Blackmore.
A fully loaded truck traveling under good conditions at highway speeds needs a distance of almost two football fields to stop, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
“They also take a long time to get moving,” Curry said. “If you want to merge onto the interstate, you need to see quite some ways behind you to make sure nobody is coming up behind you really fast.”
The LiDAR challenges for commercial vehicles don’t exist with passenger vehicles, said John Eggert, director of sales and marketing for Velodyne LiDAR Inc.
“There are other aspects that make it commercially much more viable,” Eggert said. “You don’t have to drive fully autonomously 24-7.”