(Don’t) Look Down: How Autonomous Cars Will Weather Future Storms

By: Bridget Clerkin September 17, 2018
Ground penetrating radar may help self-driving vehicles better understand their surroundings in inclement weather.
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Ostriches may be called cowards for sticking their heads in the sand at the first sign of danger, but it’s exactly that kind of tactic that may allow self-driving cars to brave their way into new territories.

Inclement weather has long been the cars’ greatest natural foe, with everything from sun flares to snow predicted to wreak some sort of havoc on their navigation abilities. But according to Boston-based tech firm WaveSense, training the cars to look down—instead of out—under stormy skies could add up to smoother sailing.

The group’s idea revolves around the concept of ground penetrating radar (GPR), a laser-based system capable of giving a car underground vision.

First developed to help troops in Afghanistan navigate around landmines and through dust storms, the radar can reach 10 feet or farther into the ground and detect anything from rocks, roots, and the road to changes in soil density. (Geologists currently use similar systems to create geological surveys and search for hidden archeological gems.)

It works by sending a spray of electronic pulses into the earth, then timing how long they take to bounce back, forming a general picture of the underground world. All told, the information could give autonomous cars an idea of where they stand above ground within an inch of accuracy, even at highway speeds.

To be sure, the autos already have plenty of help finding their way around town. The average self-driving car packs a suite of radar, LiDAR, cameras, GPS, and other mapping systems to help it stay on course.

But that impressive array of man-made technology has been no match for Mother Nature.

Even common phenomena like fog and rain can pose a threat to the intricate system, with just a light drizzle being enough to render the cars disoriented or effectively blind. Snow can be doubly dangerous, not only confusing the vehicles’ cameras but also covering lines on the road and other markings they may be seeking to get their bearings.

The vexing issue has given autonomous car developers a bit of reptilian blood, with the firms favoring perma-sunny locales for their experiments—and very few daring to go north.

Still, the introduction of a new downward dimension could do much to move the technology forward—and restore the good name of ostriches everywhere.

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