Though it’s hard to argue that tax dollars should be spent on interplanetary exploration when our nation’s roads and bridges need immediate repair, noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has put forth a compelling argument to defend NASA’s continued funding. According to Tyson, it was NASA’s ambitious Apollo moon missions that led to the rapid development of computers, the internet, and the creation of the digital age. The same argument can be made for Google and other companies’ driverless car programs.

Whether they are successful or not, they are likely to accelerate advancements in the sensor industry and lead to improvements in our daily lives that we cannot even fathom.

Recent Improvements

The driverless car industry is pushing the boundaries of sensor technology, and it’s predicted that by year 2020, over 300 billion sensors will be in use and the intelligent sensor industry will reach $10.5 billion. In recent years the technology has improved, making sensors smaller, less expensive and more powerful. This change has spawned entirely new industries like the “internet of things” and driverless cars, both of which promise to turn static everyday objects into data collection devices that react to the environment and enhance the quality, safety and efficiency of our daily lives.

Do No Harm

Advanced sensors are also promising nearly limitless potential to improve patient care. The difference between medical sensor technology and driverless car technology has to do with the foundational ethic of the medical profession, primum non nocere, to “do no harm.” Today people are surviving as a result of artificial organs, and medical technology has kept people alive who otherwise would not have made it. Driverless cars, on the other hand, have the potential to cause accidents that otherwise would have been avoidable—in other words, to create harm. This is the hurdle that Google, Ford, and others working in the industry will have to overcome.

The Crucible of the Sensor Industry

• LiDAR — this laser range finder is the heart of Google’s self-driving car. It uses 64 laser beams and takes up to 1.3 million readings per minute to create a 3D model of the surrounding world, to calculate the distance between objects, to calculate the speed of other cars, and to recognize objects as far away as 200m.

Front camera – this intelligent camera is used to ‘see’ pedestrians and motorists, read road signs, and understand traffic signals. All recordings are interpreted by the vehicles’ built-in computers.

Bumper Radar – These 4 radars give vehicles an ‘awareness’ of vehicles and pedestrians immediately in front and behind—similar to the adaptive cruise control systems and crash avoidance systems currently in use.

Other sensors – The car’s interior includes gyroscopes, altimeters, and tachymeters that determine the exact location of the car by cross-referencing data with the GPS system, which can be off by several meters. Another ultrasonic sensor on a rear wheel records the vehicle’s movements and improves measurements of speed and location.

The Brain – The car’s CPU gathers, collates, and interprets millions of points of data from all the sensors and helps the vehicle make smart ‘decisions’ – like distinguishing between a motorcycle and a bicycle, and understanding and reacting to cyclists’ hand signals.

The Challenge

At the moment, one of Google’s LiDAR laser range finders costs around $80,000—that’s the sensor, not the vehicle. Ford meanwhile has introduced a small, less expensive LiDAR system at a fraction of the cost. Here’s the challenge in the driverless car industry: the Google system appears prohibitively expensive, and Ford’s economical model is unlikely to overcome potential customers’ safety concerns.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that in the long-run, each company’s unique challenge will encourage innovation in a different area of sensor technology. The first commercially available driverless car will need to have the stunning capabilities of Google’s LiDAR laser range finder, the compact size of Ford’s LiDAR system, and a price-tag somewhere in the middle.

Advancements to Precision Optical Engineering and Sensor Technology

Whether or not this lofty goal is met, and whether or not driverless cars ever become a reality, you can bet that the technical demands placed on the sensor industry and precision optical engineering companies like IRD Glass will lead to improvements in existing technologies. If history is any guide, they’re likely to lead to an even more revolutionary product than the driverless car itself!