Autonomous driving with LiDAR technology

Publish Date

23 JUL 2021


Kai Beckmann


When people talk about the mobility of tomorrow, the topic of autonomous driving quickly comes up. Autonomous driving requires not only enormous computing power in the cars but also sensors that allow the vehicle to see where it is and where it’s going.

Solid-state LiDAR sensors, which are based on semiconductor technology, represent a potential breakthrough in this area. And this is where EMD Electronics comes into play with its innovative materials and solutions.

Future trend – autonomous driving

If the experts and market researchers are to be believed, one in three car journeys in Germany is likely to be carried out autonomously by the vehicle by the middle of this decade. More than 700,000 self-driving taxis and shuttles will be driving around in German cities. And the sales volume for autonomous transport services will be almost € 17 billion. In other words, autonomous vehicles will revolutionize mobility in our cities. This was the conclusion drawn by a study by the consultancy Deloitte entitled “Data country Germany”. However, other studies are somewhat less optimistic. A recent analysis carried out by the Prognos research institute on behalf of ADAC concludes that autonomous vehicles will catch on more slowly. The main reason for this is that cars last up to 20 years on average. However, this study also assumes that, as of 2030, more vehicles with Citypilot will be offered for autonomous driving in cities.

Sensors play a key role

No matter how quickly these technologies catch on, one thing is indispensable: Every autonomous vehicle needs sensors that make it possible to drive without putting your hands on the steering wheel. So-called LiDAR-sensors are currently coming into focus here. Unlike radar sensors, LiDAR sensors don’t emit radio waves, but rather laser beams. This technology dates back to the 1960s; the first LiDAR sensors were developed for the U.S. aerospace and defense company Hughes Aircraft. Ten years later, LiDAR technology became famous thanks to the role it played in mapping the Moon’s surface during the NASA Apollo 15 mission.

And now the breakthrough for these sensors appears to be on the horizon. Thanks to their laser-based application, they can deliver high-resolution 3D images by generating millions of data points in real time. This results in a precise map of the constantly changing environment. Objects can also be recognized and categorized. In this way, the car can distinguish between a cyclist and a pedestrian, for example, which is not possible with only conventional radar devices or ultrasound sensors in the vehicle. The LiDAR sensors also work in the dark better than cameras and are less sensitive to glaring sunlight. Experts think it will be necessary to install 50 different LiDAR sensors and systems as well as radar and cameras in the vehicle to enable a 360-degree view and ensure that it can autonomously drive safely in traffic.

Compact and efficient thanks to semiconductors

LiDAR sensors are capable of many things. However, so far, they have not been widely used due to their relatively high price and large size. After all, until recently, they depended on gears and motors to steer the laser diodes mechanically. As a result, while they provide a 360-degree view of the surrounding area, the mechanical components require a lot of space and are susceptible to technical defects. Due to their complicated design, their structure and their manual construction, they have so far been quite expensive, all things considered.

This is now changing with so-called solid-state LiDAR sensors. They are based on semiconductor technology and therefore have no moving mechanical parts. As a result, the overall systems are less complicated, last longer and fit in small casings. Moreover, they can also be manufactured more cheaply and reliably on a production line. In this way, according to a report by the Handelsblatt, the U.S. provider Velodyne expects to be able to reduce the price of a LiDAR sensor to US$ 600 on average by 2024, for example. In 2017, the average price was just under US$ 18,000. It’s therefore no wonder that numerous LiDAR start-ups have stepped up to participate in this market. However, traditional automotive suppliers such as the tradition-steeped corporate group Bosch are also getting involved. Audi is one of the first premium car manufacturers to equip its luxury vehicles with solid-state LiDAR sensors.

And thanks to LiDAR augmented reality applications, anyone who owns the latest iPhone or iPad can use their smart device to scan and display objects and even entire rooms in 3D. Using an app, the iPhone or iPad can also be used as a night-vision device.

There is good reason why market researchers are expecting the market for solid-state LiDAR technology to grow rapidly. Management consultants at McKinsey forecast a market volume of around US$ 12 billion for LiDAR applications in the automotive sector alone by 2030. Market researchers such as 360 Market Updates expect a quicker development and forecast an overall market volume of around US$ 10 billion as early as 2026. 

Contribution by EMD Electronics

We are making an important contribution to these technologies with our semiconductor materials from our Electronics business sector. After all, our innovative materials and solutions ultimately enable the development of increasingly powerful microchips and sensors, which, like solid-state LiDAR sensors, are based on semiconductor technology. In my view, autonomous driving will not be possible without them. After all, the vehicles of tomorrow will essentially be moving IT systems that need high computing power and therefore also high-performance microelectronics. We are also developing new effect pigments that fulfill the special requirements of the sensors, especially the black (LiDAR) and silver (radar) coatings. Our effect pigments enable us to give the photovoltaics integrated in the vehicle a visually attractive design. Photovoltaics are important when it comes to enabling vehicles to charge themselves in the age of e-mobility. 

Once again, EMD Electronics has been able to advance innovations and enable ever smaller, smarter, quicker, and more impactful and energy efficient solutions. In this case, for the mobility of tomorrow. 

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