Starting Autonomous Vehicles Isn't the Problem - It's Slowing and Stopping Them

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A Waymo self-driving test car using LiDAR and other sensor units. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

On the pathway to fully autonomous vehicles, tech companies are working to develop advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) that enhance an autonomous system's ability to detect and avoid collisions.

Those systems need to be able to detect obstacles in any weather condition. During rain, snow, lightning flashes, fog or any other type of inclement weather, the car will have to be able to determine if it's about to hit something and react in the space of seconds.

At Teledyne FLIR, a company that develops a wide range of sensors for multiple applications, engineers have been developing thermal imaging technology that compliments LiDAR, radar and other detection systems being implemented in vehicles.

LiDAR sensors determine how far away an object is by measuring how long it takes for the reflected light from its laser to come back to the sensor. Radar sensors detect that distance with radio waves.

In an interview with Newsweek, Chris Posch, Teledyne FLIR's automotive engineering director, says that including thermal imaging in a car's suite of ADAS technology is a way to boost safety capabilities in these conditions.

"Thermal cameras are passive sensors," he explained. "They're not active sensors. They don't need any illumination to see the object. Whereas a visible camera or even a LiDAR is an active device. You physically send something out and you wait for that return or the sun sends something out and you see that reflection."

This means that while cameras and LiDAR sensors can be adversely affected by sudden bursts of sunlight, shadows or dense fog, a thermal sensor can pick up the slack and detect objects that may go unnoticed otherwise.

Thermal cameras usually detect heat to the degree of 50 millikelvins or better, a measurement that translates to 0.1 degrees of temperature difference.

Posch believes that as automotive manufacturers work out the best systems to aid their ADAS technology, a blend of sensors that includes LiDAR, thermal and other modes of detection will increase vehicle, pedestrian, and cyclist safety by adding layers of redundancy.

"There's pros and cons for each one of these sensors," he said. " LiDAR is a very good sensor for range to target. Is there something in front of me? Where's my free space? The thermal and the visible camera, because they have way more pixels on target, do a very good job of saying 'that's a pedestrian, that's a dog, that's a deer.'"

The use of thermal sensors in testing and production in the automotive industry is growing. Self-driving startups like Waymo and Zoox are incorporating thermal sensors into their trials. New Cadillac Escalades are outfitted with thermal sensors.

In Posch's experience, automakers balk at the initial cost of the implementation of the new technology. Small price increases, scaled to millions of production vehicles, can increase the final cost of building those vehicles. That cost is usually passed on to the consumer.

His argument is that thermal sensors are magnitudes cheaper than other forms of sensor technology. Where a LiDAR sensor can cost thousands, a thermal sensor can average about $500. As adoption grows and more volume is ordered, Posch sees that number dropping to about $200.

In extensive testing with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and others, thermal cameras have picked up the slack of other tech.

Tested in day and night scenarios, a Ford Fusion outfitted with Teledyne FLIR thermal sensors was able to detect adult- and child-sized objects in a variety of conditions. Testing against an array of production vehicles, the thermal-outfitted car showed a marked improvement in tests that involved parameters like exiting a tunnel into a glare at sunrise to night conditions.

The car was also tested in fog conditions at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where it showed higher capabilities in heavier fog scenarios than a visible camera.

Automakers have been working for years to standardize automatic emergency braking systems in their vehicles. In December 2021, IIHS reported that 12 automakers had made good on a voluntary commitment to install those systems in at least 95 percent of their production vehicles, with 8 others needing to catch up to meet a voluntary deadline of September 1, 2022.

The Build Back Better infrastructure legislation signed by President Biden included a provision directing the Secretary of Transportation to establish a rule for minimum performance standards for those systems.

At the current pace, Posch estimates that thermal sensors will become standardized in passenger vehicles by 2026 at the latest.

"Customers are going to start to say, 'Hey, I want safer vehicles,'" Posch said. "It takes a while but regulatory bodies and independent certification organizations need to come around to start showing the importance of automatic emergency braking. If you can't do that, you can't do self driving. It's the basis of self driving. Can you stop if you see something in front of you?"