October 7, 2022

Kleiman's

Top-Notch Computer Crafters

Deep Dive: How software makes your car’s radar and cameras smarter

Supercharging radar technology with A.I., and why cars don’t use LiDAR

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“You know, you should do a story that explains the difference between lidar and radar, and how they work in your car. That stuff sounds cool, but I don’t know anything about it.” 

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Lidar means Light Detection and Ranging, and radar means Radio Detection and Ranging. 

Both radar and lidar do the same job of locating and sizing up objects that are far away. Both also work by bouncing signals off of things in their path, counting the time until those signals return, and using the information to create an image.  With lidar, the emitted signal is light; with radar, it’s radio waves.

Oculii is a radar software company that uses proprietary software and imaging tech to enable the next generation of autonomous systems.  I asked Steve Hong, the CEO and Co-Founder of Oculii, to help explain how lidar and radar are used in modern cars. 

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“Mercedes-Benz started to put the first radar in cars in the early 2000’s,” Hong explains.

“Today, 20 years later, about 120 million radar units are put onto the road in new cars every year. Hardware-wise, radar has been around for decades. There are billions of units on the road.”

These cheap and common radar units include hardware that powers features like Forward Collision Alert, Adaptive Cruise Control, parking clearance systems, Blind Spot Monitoring, and much more.

More advanced features require higher resolution, which requires more physical radar hardware to be fitted to the vehicle. 

“The number of antennas in the radar system dictate its performance, with pricier cars tending to have a higher number of antennas, for higher resolution,” Hong says.

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The gist? Some cars have more radar than others, depending on the equipped features and their performance level.

Radar object path detection
Radar object path detection Photo by Arbe

What about lidar?

To answer my pal Nick’s question, it turns out that it’s not yet used in modern cars at all. Hong says that’s because of the cost and complexity of lidar components, which can include many delicate moving parts that might not survive the jarring abuse of pothole season in Sudbury.

“Lidar is better for shorter ranges, and has higher resolution” Hong explains. “But it’s not used in any cars today. The systems can be fragile, and aren’t robust enough to be used in an automobile. Plus, lidar is very expensive. It has many years to go until it becomes a cost-effective solution in cars.” 

If you’re wondering, lidar is commonly used to create high-resolution 3D images and maps for forestry, mining, farming, surveying, and countless other applications. You just won’t find it in your new Honda. 

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Advances in radar tech, powered by software and Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), have held radar dominant as modern automobiles push toward an increasingly-autonomous future. Using advanced software, companies like Oculii can take simple, affordable, and proven radar hardware and make it much, much smarter. 

Automatic braking system concept
Automatic braking system concept Photo by Getty

“On its own, radar isn’t particularly sophisticated or high performance,” says Hong.

“Traditional radar is dumb. It just sends the same signal out, over and over. But software can enhance existing radar hardware, to make it virtually as good as lidar but without the cost. We can take affordable and proven radar hardware, and use software to give it 100 times the resolution, or more. That’s extreme resolution, at a low cost.”

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High resolution radar enables more advanced safety features, and higher performance of those systems. 

“With A.I., we can help determine how to learn and adapt for the best signal possible. For instance, A.I. can help automotive radar overcome the challenges of seeing through severe weather, or snow-covered bumpers,” Hong says. Though radar systems can naturally work through bad weather conditions, and can even concentrate their energy to interpret data through snow and ice-covered bumpers, the added resolution enabled by A.I. helps radar systems adapt to perform better in a wider array of driving conditions. 

Interestingly, this software-based performance boost can economically supercharge the performance of radar systems in affordable cars and crossovers, allowing automakers to roll out more advanced safety systems to more shoppers at lower price points.

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Parking using vehicle cameras
Parking using vehicle cameras Photo by Getty

There’s another cheap and proven piece of hardware that can be supercharged with A.I. and software: the camera. Like radar, camera hardware has been used in cars for ages, and today it’s cheap and reliable. 

“Initially, radar was better at seeing things farther away, since higher resolution from a camera requires more hardware,” Hong adds. 

“But by about 2010, as cameras became better, they became more dominant. Used together, cameras and radar are very complementary technologies — their strengths cover each other’s weaknesses.”

Consider the 2022 Honda Civic, an affordable compact car. Its camera-based safety system can now track nearby traffic in real time on the instrument cluster display, differentiating between cars, transport trucks and motorcycles as they’re plotted on screen. The camera just sees the image; the software behind it is the star of the show.

So, combining enhanced radar and camera tech with powerful software and processing unlocks performance that’s ready for the next levels of autonomous driving development. 

All of that, using proven hardware that’s been around for decades.

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https://driving.ca/car-culture/auto-tech/deep-dive-how-software-makes-your-cars-radar-and-cameras-smarter