Many things are possible in Silicon Valley. Theoretically even everything. The technological future once again begins in sunny California. At least many of us would like to see it that way. The fact that Google’s Self-Driving Car made it into the Computer History Museum in Mountain View is surprising, at least in terms of timing. It is a contemporary witness to a new kind of mobility, but no one knows exactly when it will really be ready for everyday use. This innovation, affectionately called the “Firefly” by many, caused a real sensation in 2014. Visitors are still amazed today when they sit inside the vehicle, put their legs up and shake their heads in disbelief. In any case, it is an attractive exhibit for the world’s largest collection of digital memories of mankind with 90,000 objects, films and data. The Self-Driving Car that has neither pedals nor a steering wheel is symbolic of the dawn and probably the greatest change in mobility since the invention of the automobile nearly 130 years ago.
It is clear to everyone that it has long since begun. “98 percent of driving consists of moving between two lines on the road. It’s the other two percent that count,” Burkhard Bilger, renowned science and technology journalist for the US magazine “The New Yorker,” is quoted as saying “only two percent. But two percent that pile up to a high hurdle.”
Glass as a material plays a key role
Change of location. Let’s leave the museum and head for the test track. Like the Google vehicle from the museum, the black Lexus RX450h also uses LiDAR sensors. The abbreviation LiDAR stands for “light detection and ranging” and currently bundles different sensor types that will be a must for the further development of self-driving vehicles. Experts agree that it will not be just one technology. As the car approaches the bend, the driver’s right foot involuntarily twitches. Brakes? The car does it. Steering? The computer takes care of it. The vehicle turns left on its own, accelerates again to just over 20 miles per hour and continues driving on the campus of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology as if by magic. Marco Reiling is sitting in the driver’s seat. But without a hand at the wheel, just for safety’s sake. The sales manager of AutonomouStuff has already driven countless miles autonomously. The company from the US, with around 100 employees worldwide, equips vehicles with sensors and technology to meet the most diverse requirements. The platform vehicles built are then used for research and development by automobile manufacturers, start-ups, universities and companies of all kinds. Reiling knows that innovations are still needed in many areas to make a decisive contribution to autonomous driving. Glass and glass solutions can play a key role in this because they help to improve the performance and quality of the sensors. If, for example, the protective window of a laser sensor allows more light to pass through, more reflected photons can be detected again to increase the signal strength. The systems are not only becoming more reliable, but also safer.
This opens up a large growth market for SCHOTT. No other company has such a potentially broad glass solution portfolio for LiDAR sensor systems. It ranges from protective windows and components for the optical path to hermetic packages for lasers, photodetectors and MEMS mirrors.
Automotive industry relies on LiDAR
Four LiDAR sensor technologies are currently in a head-to-head race, including sensors with 360° mechanical rotations, sensors that use mechanically steered mirrors or MEMS mirrors to create a horizontal field of view and those using flash technology. Each solution offers advantages and disadvantages in terms of performance, reliability and price. More than 100 companies worldwide are currently driving the technology development by taking different approaches. “The majority of automotive manufacturers rely on LiDAR,” says Boris Eichhorn, Project Manager of the LiDAR growth platform, on which SCHOTT concentrates its activities related to autonomous driving.
Dieter Gabriel stands by the side of the road and watches the rolling laboratory. The Marketing Manager of Velodyne Lidar is satisfied. The Lexus reliably finds its way thanks to the LiDAR sensors from the market leader. An ULTRA Puck™ VLP32 is mounted on the roof of the vehicle. The number 32 stands for the number of laser channels. The 32 laser diodes emit light pulses. As soon as they hit objects, they create a reflection as a result of which the reflected photons return to the detector in the sensor. The distance can be defined on the basis of the time that has elapsed. In addition, the reflected signal differs depending on the object’s surface. The signals can also be coded so that it is impossible for signals from another vehicle to be misinterpreted later on. In combination with one or two cameras behind the windshield, a GPS receiver, Internet modem and, if necessary, radar and infrared cameras, two computers in the trunk can calculate a visually distorted yet accurate image of the driving environment down to the smallest detail.
Driving without driver
Besides the technical components, the placement and number of sensors will also play a role in future developments. Thought is also being given to mounting sensors in the form of small elevations on the side of the vehicle. This would make it easier to assess clearance heights. For optical reasons in particular, there are plans to place LiDAR sensors behind the front windshield instead of centrally on the roof. Or in the exterior mirror, at the headlight positions and in the cooler grille. “Bringing the sensor into the vehicle is one thing. To place and use it in such a way that it always stays clean and has a good field of vision, is the other. This is where more glass will definitely come into play in the future,” says Gabriel. Robust glass solutions that don’t become soiled are conceivable. Sensors can only be installed behind windshields or in protective glass housings if the laser beam isn’t impaired. “Glass is the ideal material for many challenges. But we don’t need standard glass, but rather special glass,” says Gabriel.
The topic of autonomous driving is often reduced exclusively to the private car sector. However, driverless transport systems are already being used successfully in many industries today. The LiDAR market is therefore by no means limited to road traffic with private cars. Autonomous trucks are on the road in open-pit mining. There are trucks that drive goods from A to B on programmed routes. Soon trucks traveling on the same route will be able to drive in convoy. The driver of the first truck will set the speed and direction and all of the others will follow him in the slipstream at a defined safety distance, automatically steering and braking in time with the speed of the lead vehicle. The desired fuel savings: ten percent. Further applications, at airports, for wind turbines or in agriculture, for example, could also soon become reality. Glass and glass solutions can become innovation drivers in many areas of autonomous driving. Word of this has long since spread as far as Silicon Valley. And there will definitely be a space available in the museum for the first autonomous series production car for the city.