Google Self-Driving Cars May Get A New Laser Measurement System

Part of the challenge associated with high-risk research and development is considering the cost of systems that evolve over time. It is difficult to create something ‘new and innovative’, when critical systems have never seen the light of product shelves either, and instead exist only as one-off components that may, or may not work the first time ‘round.

This is true in the case of the recently re-discovered Google’s self-driving cars, and particularly, its Light-Radar (LIDAR) measurement system. This component is central to the drivability of the self-drive, since it identifies both the location and distance of relevant obstacles in real-time, thereby allowing the vehicle to avoid collisions as it moves across its appointed waypoint map.

Currently the Google LIDAR system costs approximately $80k per unit. That would be an acceptable cost if Google’s development vehicles were likely to be used only in a purely closed-course basis going forward. But now, with the recent conclusion of a series of practical city-test agreements in California and Nevada, the nature of the test program will require more budget-minding, as the company’s heretofore prototypes begin to evolve toward more productized variants.

That said, however, a group of developers at UC Berkeley have come up with a ‘smarter’ approach to the challenge of real-time laser measurement, by proposing to eliminate Google’s current rotating electro-mechanical ‘top-hat’ system, in favor of what they refer to as frequency-modulated continuous-wave (FMCW) packaging. According to the group, the FMCW system will provide the self-drive with the same level safety measurement at a considerably lower price point.

Google self-driving car LIDAR system
The current Google self-driving car LIDAR system

Google’s current rotating system, utilizes fairly bulky packaging, while at the same time requiring significant power to keep the system operating accurately. On the other hand, the FMCW package mitigates part of the power problem since at least one amplification stage will be eliminated on the way toward creating light enough to consistently track and measure the vehicle’s activity within a 30 foot (10 meter) safety circle as it moves. On top of that, central FMCW components are typically more size-efficient which in turn allow for further reductions in the overall size and cost of the final product.

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