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The new Volvo XC40, with LIDAR sensors.

Volvo Follows the LIDAR

Can it combine safety with self-driving technology?

Volvo will introduce “unsupervised driving” in the new XC90 SUV and XC40 Recharge, due to launch in 2022.

This is newsworthy for a few reasons.

First, Volvo says the system is so reliable that it requires no driver monitoring. This will be the case for highways only, but is a big step forward for autonomous cars.

As it stands, self-driving cars are expected to track driver attention to ensure they are engaged and ready to intervene.

Second, the car uses LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors, in place of the cameras and sensors that most rivals uses today. The likes of Waymo, Ford, and GM are testing cars that rely on LIDAR, but have not brought the products to market yet.

LIDAR measures distances by using laser light to illuminate objects, then uses the differences in return times to create an image of the target.

LiDAR instruments can fire up to 150,000 pulses per second, which is the sort of speed you’d want when it’s dictating where your car goes.

The Volvo sensors will look a bit like this:

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It’s a bit like GPS in terms of how it triangulates the distances and, in fact, LIDAR devices have a GPS receiver.

Elon Musk has been vocal (no, seriously) in criticizing LIDAR, calling it a “fool’s errand.” He went on, “Anyone relying on LIDAR is doomed. Doomed. Expensive sensors that are unnecessary. It’s like having a whole bunch of expensive appendices… you’ll see.”

Tesla has a pretty sizeable fleet of cars already on the road, all sharing data and improving the accuracy of the software. They plan to have a million Level 5 cars with no geofence (meaning, no driver needed, can go on any roads) within the next year. Whoever gets to that stage first can redesign the whole in-car experience, since vehicles today are dominated by the need for a driving station.

This is a big challenge for someone like Volvo: they are simply not competing on the same terms as they were before.

Volvo sells more cars than Tesla; Tesla’s market cap is significantly higher than Volvo’s.

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Tesla is developing a different kind of network and also diversifying into areas like electricity provision.

Tesla has a direct relationship with customers too, which Volvo aims to replicate. They have set a target of 25 million direct customers by 2025.

Volvo knows it needs to adapt, but the signs have been in evidence for some time already.

Musk noted that LIDAR sensors are “expensive appendices” and, while I cannot verify or falsify their appendix status, I can address the expensive part in relation to Volvo.

The main reason automotive manufacturers have not yet released a self-driving LIDAR car is the significant cost of developing the devices.

Volvo invested in a company called Luminar in 2018 and estimates say they have reduced the cost of a LIDAR system from $75,000 to under $1,000.

LIDAR will power the in-car software that guides the car and, as it is software, it can be updated remotely.

Indeed, drivers will be following the LIDAR.

Volvo has always positioned itself as the safety-conscious car company.

If it can maintain that image, while moving into the driverless car era, it will be a compelling combination.

Author of the world-famous I used to be with it, but then they changed what ‘it’ was.

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