Article written by Jeff Zurschmeide originially appeared in Digital Trends on August 13, 2018.
Traffic accidents on the freeway are a fact of life on both urban and rural interstates. The worst generally involve the largest vehicles, such as Class-8 tractor-trailer rigs. With one, two, and even three trailers behind the cab, a fully loaded semi needs about 420 feet to stop from normal highway speeds. When they don’t get the time or space to stop safely, big rigs can tip over, jackknife, or just roll right on over anything in their path.
It’s important to note big rig operators are some of the most highly skilled drivers on our roads. It’s notable that these professionals cover millions of safe and trouble-free highway miles every day, and according to the US Department of Transportation (DOT), fatalities due to accidents with big trucks are down significantly in comparison to previous decades. In 2016, there were 0.144 large truck or bus fatalities per 100 million motor vehicle miles traveled. Truck drivers are doing their jobs, but there are ways that technology is helping make trucking safer in much the same way that new cars are becoming safer.
“Even the best driver, and they are significantly better trained than normal automotive drivers, still wouldn’t be able to safely stop a rig of that size when cars are cutting in front of them,” said Andrew Nelson, North America commercial vehicles manager at Velodyne Lidar.
Digital Trends encountered Velodyne at the SEMICON West conference in San Francisco. Velodyne representatives were part of the show’s focus on disruptive technology emerging in the transportation sector.
Why lidar can help prevent big rig accidents
Most new passenger vehicles use some combination of cameras, radar, or lidar (laser radar) to look ahead and deliver forward collision warnings or automatic emergency braking. Some can detect pedestrians or animals in the roadway, while others are limited to vehicle-sized objects. The same technology enables speed-changing adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, lane changing assistance, and parking assistance.
By taking the same basic tech and applying it to large Class-8 trucks, technology companies and truck manufacturers believe they can make highways safer for everyone.
“We are currently working with a significant number of companies,” Nelson told us. “There are significant applications for a Class-8 trucking whether it is manned or un-manned. Even the best eyesight or camera can only see a specific field of view, whereas our technology can see 360 degrees virtually all the time for nearly 1,000 feet.”
Velodyne’s Lidar technology uses infrared lasers, which work at night or in low-light situations and can even see through fog and rain.
“We’ve made significant advances, and there’s always work to do, but we can see significantly better in snow, in rain, working with fog as well,” Nelson pointed out. “Many of Velodyne’s patents are around how we can amplify and apply laser power and be able to look through that. Unlike a camera, if there is stuff on the lens we can actually apply more power in real time to ensure that the light gets to the destination. If a camera is blocked or there are conditions where you can’t see, it’s like a human eye. You can’t focus it any better by applying more power.”
Applications in trucking
One of the biggest benefits of using lidar is that it’s much easier to measure speed, size, and distance than with a camera. With a Class-8 truck, the ability to place the lidar high above surrounding traffic also helps paint a complete picture.
“Because the lidar can measure physical distance, we have the opportunity to measure four, five, six cars ahead,” Nelson said. “If the concern is stopping distance for an 80,000-pound Class-8 semi, we can see and we can show a physical distance. With a camera, you are taking an image and then having to infer and use algorithms to determine how far something is away.”
The lidar system, like a radar unit, is always measuring the distance to any object making a reflection.
“Because we are using physical distance data, we don’t have to infer from brake lights or infer from a vehicle in front,” Nelson said. “We can see when a car five cars ahead is slowing down, and we can engage braking before the four cars in front of us. So, lidar mitigates stopping distances needed for a Class-8 Semi, which is one of the top two reasons that they get into accidents.”
Nelson noted additional applications include managing bridges and tunnels, enabling effective blind spot detection, and looking far ahead of the truck.
“We’ve made significant advancements and now have the ability to measure the height of a bridge overpass about 820 feet away. We will have sensors for blind spot detection, high and low on the bumper. We have other sensors that can see for 650 feet and can see a vehicle 460 away. We have one that you can place up high that sees 980 feet away and effectively denotes a vehicle 820 yards away.”
Cost is an issue but not for long
One reason truck manufacturers and trucking companies haven’t implemented all this long ago is the cost of lidar systems. However, Velodyne has been working to bring costs down to mass-market levels and develop robust products that will last in the real world.
“Right now, the cost is not really as prohibitive as they may think, due to the fact that we’ve lowered a lot of our prices,” Nelson concluded. “We have some 16-channel lidar units that are available for $4,000. We were able to drive down the cost of this lidar and produce more. In trucking, they see where lidar is going and we believe that with continued decreases the cost will not be prohibitive due to the benefit that it provides. Prices will continue to come down.”