Are Headlights on Cars a Thing of the Past?

How LiDAR Will Reshape the Auto Industry

Ford Fusion with LiDAR driving at night with no headlights
Photo: Ford

We’ve looked at the full spectrum of driverless vehicle development, from technology companies building cars (like Apple and Google), car companies developing technology (like GM, Toyota, and Ford), and even the in-between (we’d consider Tesla, an automotive and energy storage company somewhere in there). Now, the latest development comes from automobile manufacturing camp. Ford just unveiled their latest trick: a car that can drive autonomously entirely in the dark—no streetlights or headlights needed, reports Business Insider. Ford’s key is LiDAR technology. LiDAR—which stands for Light Detection And Ranging and is both an acronym and a portmanteau of “light” and “laser”—is a type of sensor that bounces laser light off of objects to create 3D images of the surroundings, and it may just reshape the auto industry.

Imagine a car that can drive autonomously in the dark—no streetlights or headlights needed.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a LiDAR instrument consists of a laser, scanner, and a specialized GPS receiver. LiDAR technology is special because it creates 3D maps of both natural and human-made environments with precision and accuracy down to just a few centimeters.

At Quoted, we’ve discussed LiDAR technology before, but even just a few months ago (in January of this year), the general consensus was that LiDAR was too expensive (up to $80,000 per unit) and too bulky (larger than a basketball) to be effectively used for commercial vehicles.

But now it looks like Ford may be changing all of that. A Ford Fusion just tested in March and unveiled earlier this month uses a much smaller iteration of LiDAR tech: called the Ultra Puck, from Velodyne, it was specifically designed for cars, and it both extends the sensing range and boasts improved precision from earlier generations, reports Tech Insider. The system costs about $8,000, which also makes it much less expensive than other versions of the technology.

Ford Fusion LiDAR testing
Ford tests Fusion Hybrid autonomous research vehicles at night, in complete darkness, as part of LiDAR sensor development. (The Auto Channel)

Which Companies Are Using LiDAR?

Back in 2012, the Google Car famously used LiDAR technology and demonstrated its prowess by ferrying a legally blind driver around for a day. But Google still uses bulky, expensive forms of LiDAR unsuited for commercial use.

In California (where a lot of driverless vehicle testing takes place), driverless cars must be registered, so it’s public record which other companies are testing autonomous vehicles with LiDAR technology on the roads, even if the companies themselves have been mum on announcing developments, reports The New Yorker. According to registration records, in addition to Google, Nissan, Mercedes, and Ford are the only companies with autonomous test cars on the road. But for now, we’ll have to await news from their camps about their technological developments.

As we’ve previously reported, a technology company called Strobe is working on developing smaller, cheaper LiDAR technology for use in personal vehicles, too. Strobe grew out of Cal-Tech and recently received $600,000 in seed funding to help them achieve their goal of creating LiDAR technology as small as computer chip with a price tag of just $100.

Google, Nissan, Mercedes, and Ford are the only companies with autonomous test cars on the road.

…And Companies Not Using LiDAR

Six months ago, Tesla CEO Elon Musk rather boldly stated that LiDAR technology isn’t something driverless vehicles need, and he implied that future Teslas won’t be using LiDAR. Instead, Teslas will “bypass lidar with a combination of simple cameras, radar (which uses radio waves to estimate distances to objects that are farther away), and ultrasound (which uses sound waves to estimate the distance to objects in the immediate vicinity),” reports The New Yorker. Musk has stated he believes LiDAR technology to be too expensive and unnecessary. Tesla, writes The New Yorker, is essentially wagering that “software and processing can beat hardware.” That is, Tesla is banking on their ability to accumulate enough data from the sheer number of cars they have on the road so as to make LiDAR unnecessary.

Not using LiDAR is a gamble, as other forms of data gathering aren’t as precise, but Musk is nothing if not bold.

Ford is much closer to Level 4 autonomous vehicles which require no human supervision.

Driverless Cars and LiDAR Technology

LiDAR marks an important step in driverless technology because, as Business Insider reports, it can accomplish tasks humans cannot (driving in complete darkness, for one), meaning cars equipped with the technology could function at a higher level than cars driven by humans. And, perhaps more importantly, LiDAR technology used this way means Ford is that much closer to Level 4 autonomous vehicles (vehicles that require no human supervision).

But do driverless vehicles really need to function in complete darkness? After all, human-piloted cars do just fine with headlights and streetlights. But the abilities of LiDAR—particularly the ability for cars with the technology to do just fine in low-light conditions—is another proof point that driverless vehicles will be safer than those driven by humans. Imagine never worrying about a deer or moose lurking up ahead, out of the range of your headlights, and drivers with poor night vision will never be afraid to drive at night again. Not to mention the increased mobility the technology poses to passengers who are elderly, handicapped, or otherwise unable to drive or even uninterested in driving themselves.

Further: the ability of a vehicle to function perfectly well in complete darkness speaks to its ability to function perfectly well (all on its own and without human intervention) in daylight hours, too.

With this latest announcement, Ford is positioning itself at the head of the pack in the race to be the first to introduce driverless vehicles. We still don’t know which company will cross the finish line first, but we’re getting closer every day.