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What is autonomous driving?

Autonomous driving requires precise knowledge of the immediate environment. Lidar (light detection and ranging) technology offers developers an alternative to radar-based systems.

Lidar as a key component of autonomous vehicles

Whether it is for semi-autonomous, highly automated or autonomous driving, the vehicle must have detailed knowledge of its environment. For this reason, many car makers employ lidar (light detection and ranging) systems for precise environmental recognition that are able to detect and recognise objects in front of the vehicle. Instead of emitting radio waves as in radar-based systems, lidar uses ultraviolet, infrared or visible light to detect objects and to optically measure distance and speed. In such laser processes, engineers make use of the fact that laser light moves at a finite speed.

The measuring principle is therefore based on the time difference between the emission of one or more (laser) light pulses and the reception of the reflected light pulse. This "time of flight" of the laser pulse is proportional to the radial distance between the measuring system and the object detected. If the velocity of light (300,000 kilometres/186,000 miles per second) is taken as a fixed quantity, the time of flight to an object can be very precisely determined in the nanosecond range. There are currently two different lidar developments. Mechanical lidar systems use rotating mirrors or a laser source on a rotating system to perform a 360 degree scan of the surroundings. By contrast, solid-state lidars do not require rotating mirrors. This technology allows the laser scanners to be produced much more compactly and cheaply. However, they are not expected to be ready for series production until a few years' time.

Atmospheric interference disturbs the lidar

With the aid of complex evaluation processes, several objects can be detected in one measuring channel (multi-target capability). There must, however, be a minimum distance between these objects. Current systems can resolve the distance within a few centimetres. This accuracy makes this optical measuring process suitable for assistance functions such as parking aids, adaptive cruise control (ACC), turning assistants, blind spot assistants and lane departure warning systems. A disadvantage of lidar technology is that individual light pulses are also reflected by water droplets in the air. As a result, atmospheric attenuation increases in fog or rain and precise measurement of distances is hardly possible any longer.

Nevertheless, advanced systems are able to adapt the sensitivity of the sensors dynamically to the weather conditions and can therefore also measure "soft" atmospheric interference with the reflections behind it (object responses). The different echo signals can be assigned to individual objects by using a special algorithm. In addition to the time of flight measurement, the time curve of the received pulse response is also evaluated. What is more, the light intensity can also be determined via the lidar sensors in order to visually recognise objects (to a limited extent).

Progress in lidar technology

Due to this progress in the development of increasingly improved lidar systems, many electronics developers intend to use light detection and ranging technology as a key component of automated driving. Among others, the following car makers are planning to introduce lidar in the coming years:

Among the leading companies currently developing lidar systems are Ibeo-ZF, Leddartech-Valeo, Quanergy-Delphi and ASC-Continental. Although they are also researching into solid-state lidar systems, the wide-scale availability of this technology on the market is not expected until 2020. Until then, almost all applications of automated driving will use mechanical lidar systems. They are also being used by OEMs as an alternative to camera-based and radar-based functions.

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RWTH Aachen, WKM

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Volkswagen AG

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Mahle Behr GmbH & Co. KG

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Burkhard Goeschel Consultancy

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Schaeffler AG

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Robert Bosch GmbH

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MAN Truck & Bus AG

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Ford-Forschungszentrum Aachen GmbH

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Audi AG

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Continental Teves AG & Co. oHG

Dipl.-Ing. (BA) Joachim Mathes
Valeo Schalter und Sensoren GmbH

Dr.-Ing. Harald Naunheimer
ZF Friedrichshafen AG

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Edag GmbH & Co. KGaA

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Hochschule München

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Adam Opel AG

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Daimler AG

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Wabco GmbH

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