Autonomous, or self-driving, cars are likely a few years from a commercial reality at the moment, although there is much debate as to when the technology will become easily affordable. We have seen Chinese Internet firm Baidu setting down plans to make autonomous buses a commercial reality in five years, but there are many steps to get through before we are able to ask our car to take us to work. The issues include the necessary changes that will be required to the law, the regulatory issues and changes, ongoing technological challenges and of course, consumers need to accept the change: simply put, many people do not trust a car to drive itself. Currently, self-driving cars need a multitude of specialist sensors and computer technology for control purposes and this kit is expensive. One of the most expensive sensor items attached to a self-driving car is the LIDAR, the specialized, typically-cone shaped object that sits on the roof of vehicles and spins. The LIDAR projects multiple laser beams out and uses this information to create a high resolution digital map of the environment. This information is subsequently processed by the vehicle and allows it to change its behavior.
Early generation LIDARs were very expensive components: Google’s early prototype vehicles used a Velodyne LIDAR unit with a price tag of $70,000. Velodyne has refined the LIDAR product and produced less sophisticated models with price tags of $30,000 and $8,000, although these LIDAR units use fewer lasers. Nevertheless, a component costing $8,000 still adds a considerable cost overhead onto a self-driving vehicle, and this is but one component.
Google have posted a job vacancy for a mechanical engineer focused on lasers for the self-driving car group. The description states that the successful applicant will: “drive the mechanical design of novel LIDAR systems and take lead on the productization of complex opto-mechanical-electrical systems.” The mechanical engineer will be required to: “collaborate with external suppliers and our internal manufacturing team to see your designs through to manufacturing.” Google, it seems, are leaving nothing to chance and also wish to reduce the cost of the technology so as to bring the product to the market as quickly as is practical. It’s not clear if Google wish to manufacturer their own LIDAR (or a close relative) system, or if they wish to work with existing suppliers, such as Velodyne, but with a more hands-on approach.