A new technology could make autonomous vehicles a lot safer and speed up their commercialization. Demo of the new technology showing the laser scanning through the foam wall. (Image credit: Nature)

 

With electric vehicles growing in popularity and autonomous vehicles still in development, we can imagine that the future of the automobile industry will be bright - and hands-free. However, there are still a few concerns surrounding the safety of passengers or passersby when autonomous vehicles hit the road. To offer a solution, a team of researchers at Stanford University invented a device that operates like an X-ray vision, but without the X-rays, to help autonomous vehicles identify objects surrounding them in difficult/hard-to-navigate weather conditions.

 

Researchers started with what is already available to achieve their goals: the system that allows autonomous vehicles to "read" their surroundings. The research team reinforced the system capabilities with a new algorithm that would analyze the movements of particles of photons in 3-dimensional situations in order to re-build the scenes. To recreate the conditions of a foggy night, researchers used a 1-inch-thick foam wall, placed the new system on one side of the wall and the objects to be detected on the opposite side. Part of the system is a laser-photon detector combo that is so sensitive that it catches every particle of a photon that hits the laser. While the laser runs through the foam wall, photons from the object behind the wall try to cross the wall, and those are the particles the detector counts. Then, the new software uses the photon count to interpret the shape of the object. The whole process's duration varies depending on the brightness of the object on the other side of the wall.

 

With that, the system accurately reconstructed the forms of the objects on the other side of the foam wall, which the human eye wouldn't have been able to do. The image perceived through the wall is the true 3-D version of the objects. The only beings we know of who can see through walls are superheroes who are usually beings from another planet, and that is probably why Gordon Wetzstein, an expert in electrical engineering and member of the research team, considered this kind "vision" to be superhuman. Although this system is not the first of its kind, it is a significant improvement of the existing solutions because it requires fewer inputs to functions than other systems.

The research team's vision is that their new creation would be useful in other fields, such as space exploration or meteorology. For now, it is important to test the system on the roads and in all possible difficult weather conditions before we start thinking of the other areas that can benefit from this technology.

 

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