Camera, radar, and LIDAR technologies gather, process, and communicate information on vehicle location and the presence of other vehicles or objects, to ensure self-driving cars navigate roads safely and efficiently.

The Technologies Behind Autonomous Vehicles, and Much More

Feb. 27, 2018
Self-driving cars and even fully autonomous vehicles are becoming a reality before our eyes. What are the innovations accelerating this progress?

Automaking has come a long way since Henry Ford created the Model T. Self-driving and even fully autonomous cars are quickly becoming a reality, and technology has got to keep pace. What are the innovations shaping the progress of autonomous vehicles, and what can we look forward to in the future?

Advanced Driver Assistance — Today’s cars are guided almost entirely according to input from the person in the driver’s seat, but when you’re sitting behind the wheel of a newer car, chances are you aren’t alone. Everything from automatic braking and parking to blind spot detection and lane departure warnings demonstrate a new class of advanced driver-assistance technology.  These advances are just the beginning of a fully autonomous car, which could be even more effective than driver-assistance technologies when it comes to saving lives. It’s estimated that close to 90 percent of car accidents are caused by human error; removing that variable may potentially save more than 30,000 lives a year.

Such advances also are altering future forecasts for the trucking industry. In 2015, there were more than 4,000 fatal accidents involving commercial trucks in the U.S. alone. While new forms of driver assistance are not designed to replace the driver, they can help make the roads safer for drivers, no matter the size of their vehicle, by catching and preventing common mistakes that lead to accidents.

Camera, radar and LIDAR — Camera, radar, and LIDAR technologies make the greatest contributions to ensuring self-driving cars can navigate the roads safely. We’re all familiar with cameras, but how do radar and LIDAR shape self-driving vehicle technology?

Radar works by emitting radio waves and measuring the time it takes for the waves to bounce off something and return to the sensors. By calculating the time that elapses, computers can accurately determine the distance between a self-driving car and other cars or obstacles on the road.

LIDAR works on the same principles, but instead of radio waves it sends out pulses of infrared light. Alone or together, radar and LIDAR allow an autonomous vehicle to map the space around it in real time.

The jury is out on whether all three technologies will be essential for creating self-driving cars or not. Google’s prefers LIDAR for its self-driving car project, while Tesla claims cameras are all you need for the job. Whether the final production model of a self-driving car uses some or all of these technologies, or none of them, one thing remains the same: nothing will work without printed circuit boards, or PCBs.

PCBs are the foundation of all modern electronics. Whether you’re reading this on a laptop, a desktop computer, a mobile phone or a tablet, you’re using a printed circuit board. Even Elon Musk’s Midnight Cherry Tesla Roadster (recently launched into orbit on the Falcon Heavy), utilizes printed circuit boards. However, his car has a custom message for any aliens that might find the Roadster floating through space — “Made on Earth by Humans.”

5G Network Infrastructure — One of the most important tools self-driving cars will have will be the ability to talk to each another. They will be able to communicate when they are near each other to support driver safety, and to communicate over long distances to teach each other vehicles about traffic conditions, construction and other obstacles they might face on the road.

There are two different ways this might be accomplished: dedicated short-range communication or an improved 5G network infrastructure.

Short-range communication could work in heavily populated areas where there are a high number of autonomous cars, but over longer distances or for people who use autonomous vehicles in more rural areas, short-range communication loses its appeal. However, it has already been tested in a number of different situations. It works at high speeds with only millisecond delays between data being transferred and received.

5G network infrastructure doesn’t just have autonomous vehicle applications. It also could change the way we use mobile phones. Currently, most phone internet networks work on 4G LTE, which allows downloads at between 4 and 12 Mbps per second. 5G is still in its infancy, but potentially it could allow download speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second.

Unless something big changes in the coming decade, autonomous cars will be the future of automotive technology. We just have to wait to see how and when they start their rise.

Megan Nichols is an amateur astronomer and environmentalist, and a writer on a wide range of scientific topics. Her recent contributions to have examined the different advantages of electroless plating and traditional plating technologies, and the emerging standards for on-demand manufacturing. She has offered insights on managing workers and robots, improving machine shop efficiency, Smart manufacturing, and other emerging issues in manufacturing technology. Follow Megan on Twitter @nicholsrmegan.