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Bosch’s sharp-sighted lidar rounds out its suite of self-driving technology

German supplier Bosch announced its first long-range lidar ahead of CES 2020. One of its top executives explained lidar fills a big sensor gap in its suite of autonomous driving technology, and it makes driverless cars a viable possibility.

Self-driving cars need to paint a highly detailed digital image of the world around them in order to operate safely and reliably in a variety of different conditions. Bosch has spent many years and millions of dollars developing the technology, it notably launched a pilot program in California with Mercedes-Benz, and its engineers concluded self-driving cars are safer when fitted with cameras, radars, and a lidar. These three types of sensors complement each other well.

Lidar technology calculates the distance between the car it is installed in and an object in the road ahead by emitting invisible laser pulses, capturing the light that bounces back, and measuring the time it took to return. Imagine you’re approaching a four-way intersection, and there’s a motorcycle coming the other way. The radar might have a difficult time seeing the bike because it is narrow, and odds are it is covered by a plastic fairing, according to Bosch. The camera will detect it, but it can be blinded by a flash of light, like the sun reflecting off a glass-walled building or another car’s mirror. Lidar has shortcomings — it’s highly sensible to extreme temperatures, for example — but it would detect the motorcycle in the aforementioned scenario.

That’s why most of the self-driving prototypes testing around the world in 2020 are fitted with a lidar. Tesla is the exception to the rule. Company co-founder and CEO Elon Musk opined “anyone relying on lidar is doomed,” and he predicted the company’s rivals will abandon the technology sooner or later. No one has so far.

Bosch isn’t an automaker, and it has never manufactured its own car. Its role as an industry supplier means it only brings automotive technology to the market with the help of another firm. The company hasn’t announced who it will sell its lidar to. There are dozens of cars (and even a handful of motorcycles) fitted with its sensors and cameras, so it’s only a matter of time before its lidar sees the light that awaits at the end of a production run. We’ll learn more at CES 2020.

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