Volvo wants to be first to put LiDAR on a production car

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Uber plans to test its fleet of autonomous Volvo SUVs in Dallas.
Image: Volvo

The push for autonomous cars has ramped up in recent days. Makers like Tesla are hoping to roll out fully autonomous cars within a few more model years. As of right now, though, the technology being used by carmakers isn’t quite ready to support hands-off driving.

LiDAR (Light Direction and Ranging) technology hopes to change that. It’s an innovative new approach to monitoring the roadways that has big implications for self-driving cars. Now, Volvo plans to be the first carmaker to include LiDAR in a production car.

Ambitious Additions

Volvo announced on Wednesday that it is partnering with Luminar to add LiDAR perception technology to its next-generation vehicles. That move paves the way for fully self-driving cars.

In essence, LiDAR works like a radar system, but with light instead of sound. It fires rapid pulses of laser light—up to 150,000 per second—and measures how long it takes for them to bounce back. This gives the sensor an extremely precise measurement of its environment in real-time. Better yet, it works in all weather conditions. That’s something that the vision-based systems being used today struggle with. Better yet, LiDAR doesn’t require Internet connectivity so it can reliably be used on almost any roadway.

As such, many see it as a particularly interesting tool for autonomous cars. Volvo is taking things a step further by actually implementing it into its vehicles. In a press release, the company notes that its next-generation SPA 2 modular vehicle architecture will be hardware-ready by the start of production in 2022. The LiDAR module from Luminar will be integrated seamlessly into the car’s roof.

Henrik Green, chief technology officer of Volvo Cars, says, “Autonomous drive has the potential to be one of the most lifesaving technologies in history, if introduced responsibly and safely. Providing our future cars with the vision they require to make safe decisions is an important step in that direction.”

Enabling Autonomy

Volvo doesn’t just plan to add LiDAR to its cars as something for the future. Models based on the SPA 2 architecture will be equipped with Highway Pilot—Volvo’s fully autonomous highway driving system.

Drivers will need to opt-in to the program. Moreover, it won’t be available for everyone at the same time. Highway Pilot will be activated in stages once it is “verified to be safe for individual geographic locations and conditions.”

Interestingly, Volvo is currently exploring the possibility of including LiDAR as a standard feature in all of its SPA 2 based cars. That could mean that those models will include more advanced driver assistance programs.

As for full self-driving, Volvo is optimistic that it will arrive shortly. Green says, “Soon, your Volvo will be able to drive autonomously on highways when the car determines it is safe to do so. At that point, your Volvo takes responsibility for the driving and you can relax, take your eyes off the road and your hands off the wheel.”

Drivers will receive over-the-air updates for their LiDAR-enabled vehicles as self-driving programs are continually improved.

While there are plenty of autonomous driving startups and projects out there, few seem to be as close to implementation as Volvo’s. For those who dream of a future where your car drives by itself, it’s certainly good news.

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