In a Mojo Motors poll, 4 out of 5 people said they would not buy an autonomous car if it were on the market today. Even early adopters might be wary of buying a driverless car. It's tough looking past the unusual design language and that big do-hicky on the roof that looks like a rotor-less helicopter motor.
To be fair, the Google's prototype would be blind without that chunky equipment which is the Lidar detector, the eyes of the driverless car. In its current form, Lidar (Light Detection And Ranging) may be unsightly, but the technology is critical to autonomous cars. It provides a detailed 3D map of the vehicle's surroundings in real time. This data is run through algorithms that allow the vehicle to identify and react to minute signals such as when a biker signals a lefthand turn.
The Silicon-Valley based company, Velodyne, is at the forefront of Lidar development. Over the years, the company has been systematically miniaturizing the Lidar component that is required for autonomous vehicles. Not only that, but they are working to reduce costs and size in order to bring their product to the masses.
Earlier this month, the company announced the launch of the VLP-16 'puck' Lidar sensor that can fit in your hand. At $7,999 this is the first viable product to be offered under ten thousand dollars. In a conversation with Mojo Motors, Velodyne's Director of Sales and Marketing, Wolfgang Juchmann, said "the introduction of Velodyne's very compact (and very affordable) LiDAR Puck, we believe we can satisfy both sides the equation."
Paul Nadjarian, founder and CEO of Mojo Motors, is also optimistic about the economic implications of the Puck. He commented, "driverless vehicles won't be approachable for the average consumer until the technology is affordable. The Velodyne puck marks a significant step towards that goal." Paul likened the adoption of autonomous vehicles to electric cars saying, "a lot of people want to own a Tesla, but the current models are way too expensive for the mass market. The same will be true for driverless cars until autonomous technology is cheap and plentiful."
Currently, Google uses the HDL-64E model to outfit its Lexus autonomous test vehicles. It is also the most capable model by far, delivering mapping data at rates satisfactory for spreadsheet worshippers in Mountain View. The problem lies in the fact that a Lexus with an HDL-64E looks about as normal as a millennial wearing Google Glass.
Some auto manufacturers are experimenting with other options. Ford is currently performing tests on a Fusion research vehicle equipped with an array of four HDL-32E detectors. As with the Google vehicles, the detectors are mounted on a metal frame housed on the roof of the car. Although the 32E is significantly less bulky than its big brother, the Fusion's Lidar array still stands out like a sore e-thumb.
Chevrolet has also utilized the Velodyne Lidar in their concept car called EN-V 2.0 (Electric Networked Vehicle). It uses a single HDL-32E component mounted on the roof. As opposed to the Google cars with their massive arrays, the EN-V 2.0 succeeds in incorporating the Lidar into the design of the vehicle. The difference is that the EN-V2 still requires a driver in the driver seat. It is capable of performing most tasks without driver intervention, but not all.
Soon, Lidar technology will likely be miniaturized to the point where devices no longer protrude conspicuously from the roof of the vehicle. Remember those massive radio antennae every car used to have? They were fun because they went "twang" but they were unsightly. Today, automakers have hid radio antennae and satellite receivers in small cases on the rear of the car or within the body of the vehicle.
Many luxury vehicles, as well as some models offered by Toyota and Subaru, contain forward-looking radars installed behind the grill. These radars monitor the speed and distance of vehicles up ahead and feed the data to adaptive cruise control and breaking systems. Considering the progress that Velodyne has already made in this burgeoning field, it seems likely that the company will find a way to contain a fully functional Lidar device within the body of the automobile.
Juchmann suggested that this might be possible with the newly introduced puck. "The sensor's diminutive size enables designers to effectively hide it within the body of the car — for example, in the side-view mirrors or the A-pillars, much as satellite radio roof antennas have taken on a streamlined, almost stylish, look."
Despite the protuberant nature of its current offerings, Velodyne's LiDAR systems are designed with a minimalist aesthetic that would please even Steve Jobs and Johnny Ives. Several older Velodyne models are on display in the Smithsonian Institution's permanent robotics collection and they're only getting better. Along with being significantly smaller than its predecessor, each generation of Velodyne's LiDAR has been more visually appealing than the last.
Considering the rapid rate at which Velodyne is iterating, it is clear that the proliferation of the driverless car will not be held back by technological hurdles. Regulatory barriers, however, will prove to be a far hairier beast. Currently, driverless cars are legal in only four states, along with one county in Iowa. Google's cars have logged thousands of accident-free miles, but there has yet to be significant regulatory action on the federal level. If companies like Velodyne and Google continue to push the pace of innovation then eventually, regulators and automotive lobbyists will be forced to succumb to the inevitable.
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