As we inch ever closer to a time when self-driving cars will populate our roads, the picture of what it takes to design these vehicles safely and capably is becoming clearer. And as you’re no doubt aware, there’s quite a lot that goes into the process! Self-driving cars are extremely complex, and it has required a great deal of creativity and technological advancement to even move us from the advent of electrical vehicles to the cusp of an autonomous driving revolution. With that said, however, there are some core technologies that appear particularly vital to the success of the said revolution.
We’re going to highlight three of them here.
You’ll see the word “Lidar” written in a number of different ways: LIDAR, LiDAR, and sometimes the plural lidars. These are all referring to the same thing, however, which is a laser-based sensor technology used for determining distances. Basically, Lidar releases lasers and measures how long it takes for their light to rebound off of surrounding objects and surfaces — thus calculating how far away those objects and surfaces are. It is perhaps the most significant technology electrical vehicles use to generally position themselves and monitor their environments, and the better it gets, the better the cars will perform.
We should also note that Lidar isn’t the only method a self-driving car can use to get a feel for its surroundings. Tesla, for instance, opts for a special sort of camera instead. But Lidar is essentially the leading tech giving vision to self-driving cars, and figures to be the most commonly used option moving forward. Recently, CNBC even reported that the mere indication of interest in self-driving car production from Apple had caused leading Lidar stocks to soar. That gives you some idea of how much people tie the technology to progress in autonomous vehicles.
Printed circuit boards, or PCBs, make for a fascinating topic in that they’re extraordinarily important but most people overlook them entirely. The bottom line though is that in vehicles that operate electronically and use increasingly “intelligent” features, PCBs are going to play a larger role than they have in cars before. They are the circuit boards that facilitate electrical connections such that commands become functions. And to operate reliably in smart vehicles, they need to be designed such that they are light, durable, effective at conducting heat, and suitably complex to handle a myriad of demands.
Fortunately, this is one area in which there is little doubt of technology keeping up with need. PCB design software today enables very complex engineering, as well as plenty of testing and fine-tuning. Additionally, Altium points out that more advanced, modern PCBs are now pieced together by entire teams of experts, whereas designs used to be rendered by individuals and then sent off for manufacturing. This makes for greater efficiency and easier innovation, and ensures that PCBs can keep evolving to meet the needs of modern tech — such as self-driving cars.
While Lidar and advanced PCBs will be core components of the actual cars, the strength of 5G networks will ultimately do as much as any one technology to define the success of the autonomous driving revolution. Simply put, these vehicles need to be able to communicate with each, and the total connectivity of near-future 5G is going to be responsible for facilitating that communication. Additionally, as was smartly pointed out in a piece at Recode, 5G will also boost network capabilities for autonomous vehicles, such that they can also communicate with their environments. In time, this will allow them to know traffic signals in advance, optimize their own routes according to conditions, and so on.
5G is also an example of a technology that raises some important questions beyond its core capabilities. In our “Five Things To Know About: Making Self-Driving Cars Safe” we touched on the importance of protecting private data in connected vehicles. 5G specifically introduces some potential vulnerabilities on this front that will need to be addressed. But that is a separate issue, and the bottom line is that the tech itself is absolutely essential to the autonomous driving future we like to envision.
Again, there’s a whole lot that goes into these vehicles in the end, and more technologies than these will help to determine success or failure. In assessing what will finally get us over the hump and into the self-driving era though, it’s hard to come up with more essential components than these.