For Self-Driving Cars, the Hot New Technology Is… Radar
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For Self-Driving Cars, the Hot New Technology Is… Radar

Companies are improving the century-old technology to help vehicles operate more safely

By Christopher Mims
Wed, Sep 29, 2021 11:54amGrey Clock 5 min

One of the hottest new technologies for next-generation auto-safety systems and planned “autonomous” vehicles has roots going back a century.

Yes, we’re talking about radar, the same technology that began as a curiosity in the early 20th century, helped Britain to repel the Luftwaffe in World War II, and has long enabled weather forecasting and allowed air-traffic controllers to keep our skies safe.

Today, radar is no longer just for aeroplanes and military installations. A number of new companies on both the hardware and software side are making radar an integral part of safety systems to detect cyclists and pedestrians.

The need for such technology is urgent: Pedestrian deaths in the U.S. have surged in the past few years, even as Americans logged fewer miles on the road. And increasing levels of autonomy in new vehicles that enable features like collision warning, automatic braking, and blind-spot detection—not to mention the driverless cars of the future—are entirely dependent on advanced sensory systems. Such systems are also essential for auto makers to meet their promises to incorporate automatic braking systems into all vehicles by 2022.

To reduce and prevent carnage on our roads, companies like Mobileye, a subsidiary of Intel, are working on chips bristling with tiny radar antennas. General Motors recently invested in Oculii, an all math-and-software startup that uses machine learning to shape the kinds of signals automotive radar systems use. The software company MathWorks is developing algorithms that can allow auto makers to integrate data from radar and other sensors into a trustworthy picture of the world around a vehicle.

For engineers who work on vehicle sensors, now is a time of rapid change, says Erez Dagan, executive vice president of products and strategy at Mobileye. Cameras used in automobiles continue to become higher resolution, and are able to sense a wider range of natural light than they used to. Lidar, which bounces lasers off surrounding objects to “see” the world in 3-D, is becoming less expensive than it used to be. (Lidar is common in robot taxi prototypes, such as those from Waymo, the Google sister company, GM’s Cruise and Amazon’s Zoox.)

Radar, which bounces radio waves off objects—the term was born as an acronym for “radio detection and ranging”—has been used on some first-generation safety systems in vehicles since the 1990s. Automotive radar systems have a number of advantages. They’re tough enough to survive years of jostling and temperature swings when mounted on cars. They’re much, much less expensive than lidar, good at instantaneously measuring the velocity of objects, and able to peer through the kinds of inclement weather, like fog and rain, that can foil both cameras and lidar systems. But they have until recently had one major drawback: They have only a fraction of the resolution of those other systems, which means in essence that the images they produce are much blurrier.

Oculii’s technology works by changing the shape—also known as the waveform—of the radar signal sent out by radar on cars. The physics are complicated, but by changing the nature of the radar signal depending on what sort of objects it’s bouncing off of, it can resolve objects whose shape would be impossible to “see” otherwise. The result, says Chief Executive Steven Hong, is that existing automotive radar sensors, which cost around $50 apiece, can generate three-dimensional images of a car’s surroundings with a much higher resolution. The company’s software is set to make its debut in radar-based safety systems in the forthcoming Lotus Lambda SUV, to be released in 2023.

Leveraging the chip manufacturing abilities of parent company Intel, Mobileye is working on individual microchips covered with nearly 100 tiny antennas. By using artificial intelligence software to process the noisy signals they receive, Mobileye says its systems can do things like identify pedestrians, at least in the lab. That’s something that previously could only be achieved with cameras and lidar.

There is no unanimity among automobile technologists about what configuration of cameras, lidar and radar will become the standard way to achieve various safety systems or autonomous driving, but nearly all agree that the best solution will be some combination of them.

The resolution that even the best automotive radar can achieve is only as good as the worst lidar systems available, says Matthew Weed, an engineer and senior director of product management at Luminar, which makes lidar systems for automobiles. Luminar’s system, which Mr. Weed says is superior to radar for most applications, costs $1,000, however.

Mr. Weed says that Luminar’s lidar-based systems could justify their cost by being so good that they could lower drivers’ insurance costs by preventing accidents and pedestrian deaths. Even with such a system on a car, radar would be a good backup for when it fails or can’t handle severe weather, he adds.

Mobileye uses lidar, cameras and radar in its most advanced systems. CEO Amnon Shashua has said that while lidar systems have come down in price, they are still 10 times the cost of radar, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, on account of the complexity of the hardware involved.

Elon Musk’s Tesla has gone all-in on its bet that the company can achieve true autonomous driving in its vehicles using only cameras.

Cameras have the advantage of extremely high resolution, and they’re affordable and compact thanks to years of advances in smartphone cameras. But for a system that can achieve the highest safety standards, and even eventually full autonomy, cameras need backup sensors that fail under different sets of conditions than they do, Mr. Dagan adds.

Take fog, which looks like an obstacle to both camera-based and lidar-based systems, potentially causing vehicles to stop when they shouldn’t. In research published in 2020, radar-based automotive sensors had no trouble penetrating fog and correctly identifying stopped vehicles hidden within it, says Dinesh Bharadia, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of California San Diego who contributed to the work.

Dr. Bharadia says his team found that one key is using multiple radars, spaced at least five feet apart on a vehicle. It’s the same principle at work in the ever-expanding number of cameras on the backs of our smartphones, he adds. It’s possible to build up an “image” of a car’s surroundings using multiple low-cost radar sensors, just as our phone can use multiple small and inexpensive cameras, and then recombining the images they gather into something much sharper.

Bringing all the sensors on a car together into a single, coherent view of the reality outside a vehicle requires fusing all that data together, says Rick Gentile, an engineer who used to work on radar systems for defence applications and is now a product manager at MathWorks, a software company that builds tools to help process data. For example, while radar might be able to detect that there’s a sign up ahead, it can’t see its colour, which is critical to quickly identifying what kind of sign it is.

For so-called robot taxis, the way to make up for the gaps in the capabilities of each kind of sensor is to use all of them. The goal is “full redundancy,” says Mr. Dagan, so that even if one sensor has an error, others perceive the world correctly. This, he argues, is the fastest way to give vehicles senses that are at least as good as a human’s. (Whether those vehicles will have judgment sufficient to actually drive themselves around safely is a separate matter.)

Until we get real autonomous vehicles—something that could be years, if not decades away—auto makers will have to choose among radar, lidar and cameras, or some combination of the three, to create safety systems that can meet their promises to make automatic braking systems standard by 2022, and to continue to improve those systems. All three sensor types continue to get better, but the difference in cost among them has led automakers to favour one technology or another, depending on how well they think they can make up for its deficiencies with software and AI.

This has led to healthy competition among makers of safety systems, sensors and supporting software—whomever you talk to, they argue their systems are the best.

As all of these companies jostle for a place on your car, the goal of all of these technologists is to profit by significantly reducing road fatalities of every kind, when a human is behind the wheel. It’s a goal that they all agree is much closer at hand than fully autonomous vehicles.

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: September 28, 2021.


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At the World Plogging Championship, contestants have lugged in tires, TVs and at least one Neapolitan coffee maker

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GENOA, Italy—Renato Zanelli crossed the finish line with a rusty iron hanging from his neck while pulling 140 pounds of trash on an improvised sled fashioned from a slab of plastic waste.

Zanelli, a retired IT specialist, flashed a tired smile, but he suspected his garbage haul wouldn’t be enough to defend his title as world champion of plogging—a sport that combines running with trash collecting.

A rival had just finished the race with a chair around his neck and dragging three tires, a television and four sacks of trash. Another crossed the line with muscles bulging, towing a large refrigerator. But the strongest challenger was Manuel Jesus Ortega Garcia, a Spanish plumber who arrived at the finish pulling a fridge, a dishwasher, a propane gas tank, a fire extinguisher and a host of other odds and ends.

“The competition is intense this year,” said Zanelli. Now 71, he used his fitness and knack for finding trash to compete against athletes half his age. “I’m here to help the environment, but I also want to win.”

Italy, a land of beauty, is also a land of uncollected trash. The country struggles with chronic littering, inefficient garbage collection in many cities, and illegal dumping in the countryside of everything from washing machines to construction waste. Rome has become an emblem of Italy’s inability to fix its trash problem.

So it was fitting that at the recent World Plogging Championship more than 70 athletes from 16 countries tested their talents in this northern Italian city. During the six hours of the race, contestants collect points by racking up miles and vertical distance, and by carrying as much trash across the finish line as they can. Trash gets scored based on its weight and environmental impact. Batteries and electronic equipment earn the most points.

A mobile app ensures runners stay within the race’s permitted area, approximately 12 square miles. Athletes have to pass through checkpoints in the rugged, hilly park. They are issued gloves and four plastic bags to fill with garbage, and are also allowed to carry up to three bulky finds, such as tires or TVs.

Genoa, a gritty industrial port city in the country’s mountainous northwest, has a trash problem that gets worse the further one gets away from its relatively clean historic core. The park that hosted the plogging championship has long been plagued by garbage big and small.

“It’s ironic to have the World Plogging Championship in a country that’s not always as clean as it could be. But maybe it will help bring awareness and things will improve,” said Francesco Carcioffo, chief executive of Acea Pinerolese Industriale, an energy and recycling company that’s been involved in sponsoring and organizing the race since its first edition in 2021. All three world championships so far have been held in Italy.

Events that combine running and trash-collecting go back to at least 2010. The sport gained traction about seven years ago when a Swede, Erik Ahlström, coined the name plogging, a mashup of plocka upp, Swedish for “pick up,” and jogging.

“If you don’t have a catchy name you might as well not exist,” said Roberto Cavallo, an Italian environmental consultant and longtime plogger, who is on the world championship organizing committee together with Ahlström.

Saturday’s event brought together a mix of wiry trail runners and environmental activists, some of whom looked less like elite athletes.

“We like plogging because it makes us feel a little less guilty about the way things are going with the environment,” said Elena Canuto, 29, as she warmed up before the start. She came in first in the women’s ranking two years ago. “This year I’m taking it a bit easier because I’m three months pregnant.”

Around two-thirds of the contestants were Italians. The rest came from other European countries, as well as Japan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Algeria, Ghana and Senegal.

“I hope to win so people in Senegal get enthusiastic about plogging,” said Issa Ba, a 30-year-old Senegalese-born factory worker who has lived in Italy for eight years.

“Three, two, one, go,” Cavallo shouted over a loudspeaker, and the athletes sprinted off in different directions. Some stopped 20 yards from the starting line to collect their first trash. Others took off to be the first to exploit richer pickings on wooded hilltops, where batteries and home appliances lay waiting.

As the hours went by, the athletes crisscrossed trails and roads, their bags became heavier. They tagged their bulky items and left them at roadsides for later collection. Contestants gathered at refreshment points, discussing what they had found as they fueled up on cookies and juice. Some contestants had brought their own reusable cups.

With 30 minutes left in the race, athletes were gathering so much trash that the organisers decided to tweak the rules: in addition to their four plastic bags, contestants could carry six bulky objects over the finish line rather than three.

“I know it’s like changing the rules halfway through a game of Monopoly, but I know I can rely on your comprehension,” Cavallo announced over the PA as the athletes braced for their final push to the finish line.

The rule change meant some contestants could almost double the weight of their trash, but others smelled a rat.

“That’s fantastic that people found so much stuff, but it’s not really fair to change the rules at the last minute,” said Paul Waye, a Dutch plogging evangelist who had passed up on some bulky trash because of the three-item rule.

Senegal will have to wait at least a year to have a plogging champion. Two hours after the end of Saturday’s race, Ba still hadn’t arrived at the finish line.

“My phone ran out of battery and I got lost,” Ba said later at the awards ceremony. “I’ll be back next year, but with a better phone.”

The race went better for Canuto. She used an abandoned shopping cart to wheel in her loot. It included a baby stroller, which the mother-to-be took as a good omen. Her total haul weighed a relatively modest 100 pounds, but was heavy on electronic equipment, which was enough for her to score her second triumph.

“I don’t know if I’ll be back next year to defend my title. The baby will be six or seven months old,” she said.

In the men’s ranking, Ortega, the Spanish plumber, brought in 310 pounds of waste, racked up more than 16 miles and climbed 7,300 feet to run away with the title.

Zanelli, the defending champion, didn’t make it onto the podium. He said he would take solace from the nearly new Neapolitan coffee maker he found during the first championship two years ago. “I’ll always have my victory and the coffee maker, which I polished and now display in my home,” he said.

Contestants collected more than 6,600 pounds of trash. The haul included fridges, bikes, dozens of tires, baby seats, mattresses, lead pipes, stoves, chairs, TVs, 1980s-era boomboxes with cassettes still inside, motorcycle helmets, electric fans, traffic cones, air rifles, a toilet and a soccer goal.

“This park hasn’t been this clean since the 15 century,” said Genoa’s ambassador for sport, Roberto Giordano.


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