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The landscape of driving vehicles has changed over the last several years, but the future will change drastically as more companies develop the perks of autonomous technology. However, the cost of the operation to transform an automaker into building anonymous vehicles is a concern for many companies. The biggest cost is the lidar, the technology known to broadcast the vast amount of data needed to move a vehicle through traffic without a driver. This technology is responsible for being able to avoid hitting other cars, pedestrians, hazards along the way and move an autonomous vehicle safely through traffic. Currently, the cost of building the complex mechanical parts that lidar is made up of is very expensive, but that all could change soon.
Lidar Significance and Cost
Lidar technology requires a lot of things to go right. This is part of the issue that autonomous technology is currently working to improve. The robotic navigation systems currently in place bounce light waves off all objects in front of the autonomous vehicle and quickly make decisions as the vehicle moves forward. This technology uses flashlight-sized infrared lasers that constantly move around projecting and scanning along data. The lidar technology is housed on top of a vehicle, much like a police vehicle has lights on top of its roof. The cost of this technology is anywhere from $8,000 to as much as $30,000. That's just the cost of lidar technology, let alone the vehicle.
Breakthrough In Engineering
A new electrical engineer, Jelena Vuckovic, is now leading her autonomous development team to build a way to try and shrink the mechanical and electronic components in a rooftop lidar to only a single silicon chip. This advancement she thinks would become widespread and produced at a far cheaper cost. If this is true, her project could alter the cost of lidar pricing, making lidar more affordable. The project has been in the works for a few years, trying to figure out how to manage this. Their work has been published in Nature Photonics. Vuckovic's team has described the process that includes using infrared transparency to alter the process that allows the light beams to work from a single-chip rather than the original lidar set-up.
By using an inverse design, Vuckovic's lab has engineered over the past decade, they are close to a breakthrough. Inverse design uses a powerful algorithm that creates a blueprint for the actual photonic circuits that perform unique functions (projecting a laser beam out ahead of a car to decipher objects on the road and sending signals of the reflected light back to a detector. The amount of time between when the light pulse is relayed, lidars measure the distance between car and objects. A two-year process unfolded to take that technology and put lidar on a new chip prototype that performs like the old system in a much smaller capacity. The chip was built at the Stanford nanofabrication facility. Postdoctoral scholar Ki Youl Yang and Ph.D. student Jinhie Skarda played important roles in that process, with important theoretical insights from City University of New York physicist Andrea Alù and CUNY postdoctoral scholar Michele Cotrufo. Their work might be the difference that moves this technology forward.
The Next Step
Creating this range-finding mechanism on a chip was essential and now the next part of the puzzle is creating cheaper lidars. The researchers have the next goal to create a laser beam that moves in a circle without the use of the pricey parts that are currently being used. Vuckovic says that her team should create this last element needed to reduce the cost in about three years. If her team comes through, the world will see autonomous vehicles a lot sooner in terms of mass production.
"We are on a trajectory to build a lidar-on-a-chip that is cheap enough to help create a mass market for autonomous cars," Vuckovic said.
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