Guided by laser: how autonomous cars see

The fully autonomous cars of the future will revolutionise road safety, but to do so they need to be able to see and understand their surroundings clearly. That’s why Volvo Cars is working with US tech company, Luminar, to develop laser-based LiDAR technology that can see further – and more – than ever before.


This image shows how Volvo Cars’ LiDAR technology ‘views’ the world around it

Vision is everything when it comes to the fully autonomous cars of the future. Volvo Cars has a vision for fully autonomous vehicles that will make our roads safer, give us greater freedom over how we use our time, and even change the way our cities are designed. This is the vision of the future explored by the Volvo 360c concept car. Vision also means sight, of course, and this is just as important. Because ensuring that autonomous cars can see and perceive the world around them clearly is the key to making them a success. Being able to tell the difference between a child and a fire hydrant, or seeing a dog and anticipating that there’s probably someone walking it, is something that we, as humans, do instinctively. Enabling fully autonomous cars to do the same is what will create the safe, sustainable and flexible mobility of the future.

Laser vision
Where we have eyes to see and brains to make sense of what we’re seeing, autonomous cars rely on cameras, sensors and software. LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is one of the central components. This technology works by firing rapid pulses of (invisible) laser light and measuring how long it takes them to bounce back to their source. It happens many thousands of times a second, using multiple beams. In combination with precise GPS positioning and the right software, it creates a highly detailed 3D map of the car’s surroundings, in real time.

The image that the system ‘sees’ is known as a point cloud. This mass of brightly coloured dots on a black background is very different to how we see the world, yet it’s incredibly rich in information and allows an autonomous car to plot its progress – and monitor what’s happening around it – with pinpoint accuracy.

Partners in sight
Not all LiDAR systems are created equal, however. And to make sure that its future autonomous cars have the best vision possible, Volvo Cars has partnered with – and invested in – Luminar, a US-based tech start-up that has developed its own advanced LiDAR technology.

In partnership with Volvo Cars engineers in California, Luminar has developed LiDAR technology that can look further than many similar systems currently available. It can detect objects up to 250 metres away, which makes a crucial difference at highway speeds, giving the car more time to react to potential danger.

The man behind Luminar is CEO Austin Russell, who started working with sensor technology aged 10 and co-founded Luminar in 2012 at the age of 17. His vision has created LiDAR technology like no other. “For autonomous vehicles to truly become a reality they need to be able to reliably see and understand the world around them in 3D. We set out to build a technology completely from the ground up to solve that.”

As well as its exceptional range, the LiDAR technology developed by Luminar and Volvo Cars also captures an unprecedented level of detail. “Our technology allows for detection of human shapes, and their actions, which has never been possible before for LiDAR on vehicles,” says Russell.

Luminar’s sensors also help to solve some of the practical problems facing the development of fully autonomous cars, Russell explains, such as the ability to easily see dark objects on a dark background, and to function properly in poor conditions such as rain, fog and snow.

A city street scene, viewed from above

The power of perception
Enabling autonomous cars to see an object accurately is the first step towards making them safe. The next is helping them to understand what that object is and how it might – or might not – behave so that it can react accordingly. That’s why Volvo Cars and Luminar are also working together to develop the ‘perception technology’ software that will ensure the autonomous cars of the future make the right decisions on the road.

“Autonomous technology will take driving safely to a new level, beyond human limitations, and promises new benefits for our customers and society as a whole,” says Henrik Green, senior vice president for research and development at Volvo Cars. “Luminar shares our vision in making those benefits a reality. This new perception technology is the result of a close collaboration between our engineers in California and their colleagues at Luminar. It is an important next step towards one our main strategic objectives at Volvo − the safe introduction of fully autonomous cars.”

A womoan at work in the interior of the Volvo 360c autonomous concept

A vision of our autonomous future: the Volvo 360c concept

Imagine a future where your car offers an experience in first-class travel, allowing you to spend your time working, sleeping, watching a movie or simply relaxing while it does the driving for you, safely. This is the future explored by the Volvo 360c – an electric, fully autonomous concept car created to spark debate about the positive changes that autonomous cars could bring about.

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