Affordable robocars -- will it be cameras or LIDAR?

There have been a wide variety of announcements of late giving the impression that somebody has “solved the problem” of making a robocar affordable, usually with camera systems. It’s widely reported how the Velodyne LIDAR used by all the advanced robocar projects (including Google, Toyota and many academic labs) costs $75,000 (or about $30,000 in a smaller model) and since that’s more than the cost of the car, it is implied that is a dead-end approach.

Recent stories include a ride in MobilEye’s prototype car by the New York Times, a number of reports of a claim from the Oxford team (which uses LIDAR today) that they plan to do it for just $150 and many stories about a Romanian teen who won the Intel science fair with a project to build a cheaper self-driving car.

I have written an analysis of the issues comparing LIDARS (which are currently too expensive, but reliable in object detection) and vision systems (which are currently much less expensive, but nowhere near reliable enough in object detection) and why different teams are using the different technologies. Central is the question of which technology will be best at the future date when robocars are ready to be commercialized.

In particular, many take the high cost of the Velodyne, which is hand-made in small quantities, and incorrectly presume this tells us something about the cost of LIDARs a few years down the road, with the benefits of Moore’s Law and high-volume manufacturing. Saying the $75,000 LIDAR is a dead-end is like being in 1982, and noting that small disk drives cost $3,000 and declaring that planning for disk drive storage of large files is a waste of time.


Cameras or Lasers in the robocar

I will add some notes about Ionut Budisteanu, the 19-year old Romanian. His project was great, but it’s been somewhat exaggerated by the press. In particular, he mistakenly calls LIDAR “3-D radar” (an understandable mistake for a non-native English speaker) and his project was to build a lower-cost, low-resolution LIDAR, combining it with cameras. However, in his project, he only tested it in simulation. I am a big fan of simulation for development, learning, prototyping and testing, but alas, doing something in simulation, particularly with vision, is just the first small step along the way. This isn’t a condemnation of Mr. Budisteanu’s project, and I expect he has a bright future, but the press coverage of the event was way off the mark.

Great read Brad. Lidar is

Great read Brad. Lidar is good for driverless taxi fleets. They have all the liability so the added costs shouldn't be a problem. They will pass the cost onto their passengers anyway.

Toyota chip ...

This time-of-flight sensor/camera from Toyota that
was in JSSC a few months ago made me more optimistic:

The full paper is behind the IEEE firewall, but hopefully the
abstract is free to read for all ...

A 32 sensor array

Understand that this is a 32 sensor array. The Velodyne has 64 sensors, but they are individual components — putting it all on one chip is a good path to making it cheaper. The 320x96 scanner they describe is, I presume, the result of some sort of scanning which is why it’s 10hz, as they would have to make 960 scans with the 32x1 array to do this.

As noted, today’s high resolution LIDARs tend to be done with a large array of individual lasers and an array of photodiodes. Each photodiode is aimed where the laser will fire so that you can read them all at once.

Although it presumably is

Although it presumably is short ranged, it can only be good news for robotics advancement that the naxt Xbox's next kinect has a high resolution flash lidar with mm accuracy, bringing such a device into cheap mass production will be great for robotics experiments. The PS4 also has a stereoscopic camera ensuring that some of the large and established game industries time and money will be looking into 3d robot vision.

Localization Technologies and challenges

Great read Brad. Thanks for your insights. You mention "advanced localization" in passing. Can you please elaborate on the trends in Advanced Localization, technologies, pros/cons, challenges, price points, requirements for HD Maps, etc.

Is it possible to make a fully autonomous car without LiDAR?

Big fan of your blog Brad!

Clearly LiDAR is much more robust. Cameras can be used for semi autonomous systems, but do you see any way that a fully autonomous car can function without LiDAR (using only a camera + a sensor suite)? In your opinion is that at all possible? If not today, do you think this could happen in the next 5 years?

Is it possible

It’s not possible today — not if you want to go more than about 25mph, and difficult even under that speed. You just are not going to be reliable enough to run unmanned.

In the future? It’s obviously possible for vision to work, since that’s what humans do. (And not even stereo, we can drive with one eye.) However, we do that by having an incredible pattern matcher and classifier and “understander” that is vastly beyond any computer system today. We see a pedestrian and we don’t just know what they are and how far away they are and which way they are going, but much more.

Some day, there will be vehicles with just cameras. Nobody knows when that day is, because it requires not just evolutionary progress, but breakthroughs. Perhaps it comes in less than 3 years, though most would doubt that. If not, the first cars that go out are going to need LIDAR, because nothing else does what you need.

Certain low speed applications — valet parking, low speed shuttle — might work with just a camera or camera+radar+ultrasonic

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