Image credit: Volvo
Elon Musk may think lidar is not an important component for self-driving automobiles, but Volvo sees things differently. It says it will partner with Lunimar, a Silicon Valley-based company that is a world leader in lidar technology, to embed its lidar units into Volvo cars as early as 2022. Lidar sensors send out millions of pulses of laser light. They then bounce off objects in their path. The reflected laser light allows a computer to accurately detect where objects are by scanning the surrounding environment in 3D and creating a temporary, real time digital map without requiring internet connectivity.
The next generation of Volvo cars using the company’s SPA modular architecture will offer Luminar lidar units built into the roof. Volvo’s Highway Pilot system will enable drivers to take their hands off the wheel once the car is operating on an appropriate highway. Think of it as Level 2.5 autonomy that is not intended for use on country roads or in city traffic. In coming years, all Volvos may come with a lidar sensor as standard equipment.
Henrik Green, chief technology officer at Volvo Cars, says in a press release, “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.”
Some readers may recall that Volvo has had negative things to say about Tesla’s Autopilot system in the past. Green’s words seem to be carefully chosen to suggest it still thinks Tesla has moved too far, too fast on its autonomous driving claims. The company makes a point of saying “Lidar is key in creating cars that can navigate safely in autonomous mode, providing them with the reliable vision and perception that cameras and radar alone cannot provide. Lidar is the ideal basis for safe decision making in complex environments at high speeds.”
“Soon, your Volvo will be able to drive autonomously on highways when the car determines it is safe to do so,” Green says. “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. Over time, updates over the air will expand the areas in which the car can drive itself. For us, a safe introduction of autonomy is a gradual introduction.” Another dig aimed at Tesla, no doubt.
Austin Russell, founder and CEO of Luminar, says “Volvo is recognized as the pioneer of automotive safety, having driven standardization across the industry for the most advanced life-technologies. The next era of safety lies within autonomous driving and once again, Volvo has taken the lead with a major industry milestone. We’ve solved the key cost, performance, and auto-grade challenges to make series production possible, and alongside Volvo are making the technology available to the world.”
Volvo certainly has earned its stripes over the years as a manufacturer that builds safe automobiles. Whether lidar will come to be viewed as an essential component of self-driving cars remains to be seen. In part, companies that refuse to incorporate lidar into their self-driving technology run the risk of being characterized by personal injury lawyers as negligent, especially if lidar is adopted as the industry standard by most companies. Not everything in life is about technology, much as the Silicon Valley ethos admires those who run around and break things.
Lawmakers, regulators, and courts will all have an impact on the implementation of autonomous driving systems. Volvo is one company that intends to leave no stone unturned in its quest for the safest possible driving experience.