Last month, we were part of the first AutoSens Detroit event at the M1 Concourse. AutoSens is, in a nutshell, a gathering of the world’s finest engineers, researchers, and other authority figures in the arenas of vehicle perception technology and autonomous driving. It is a place where those working on the technology can converge to network, communicate, and ultimately address the real challenges at hand. The organizers believe in order for our cars to be successfully connected, those working in the space must successfully connect.
Walking the grounds of the M1 Concourse proved very informative and enlightening, from the various companies on hand displaying their latest vehicle perception technology, to the autonomous vehicle demonstrations happening on the facility’s track. It didn’t take long to realize the organizers of AutoSens invited some heavy hitters, many of which are smaller companies disrupting the space with their novel approaches to automated technology.
Here are three companies we met changing the way we think about autonomous vehicles.
Colorado-based Imatest provides unbiased image quality testing for a number of industries, including mobile electronics, security, medical imaging, and automotive. The company supplies in-depth software, test charts, and consulting relative to a client’s imaging needs, be it a camera phone or satellite. Some companies create their own in-house camera testing software, but often to their dismay, find inconsistencies. Imatest assists clients here so they don’t lose precious time developing their product line.
With driverless cars, the implication is huge because cameras will play a vital role in the forthcoming autonomous world. In order for autonomy to deliver on its promises of reducing collisions and traffic fatalities, image quality is essential. Imatest takes this into consideration as today’s automotive trends usher us further into autonomy.
“Companies who are putting a camera into their product, like a backup camera in a car, are trying to find a way to optimize those products,” said Jeff Herman, Chief Executive Officer. “Our software and charts can test the image quality of that particular camera.”
Concerning automotive applications, particular attention is given to dynamic range and light quality. For example, if a car is backing out of a dark garage and into the bright sun, there will be a sudden change in the lighting conditions. However, the camera needs to see perfectly regardless. Perhaps a child is playing in the driveway? In order for a camera to function properly as a safety device, it must decipher vital details quickly, and in a variety of lighting conditions. Imatest’s unique software and “seeing eye” charts tell how strong a particular camera’s image quality is before being installed in the vehicle.
“The camera takes an image of the test chart, our software recognizes the image, and can tell you how sharp that image is,” Herman explained. “It tells us how accurate it is, how the colors are, is there distortion or noise, is it as sharp in the left corner as it is in the center, and so on. These image quality factors we can test through our software.”
Imatest Master was made specifically for the growing trend of camera usage, and the pressure companies feel to produce cameras at a rapid rate, each with a higher image quality and more features than before. With autonomous driving, the implications are again huge. The automotive business moves quickly as is, but in recent times, the development of autonomous technology has taken off like a rocket. Some consumers may fear the speed at which the technology is moving means all the bugs are not quite worked out. Imatest Master addresses this on an image quality level for automated vehicle cameras, providing over 30 different test charts to measure and analyze color, tone, sharpness, and other important factors.
“The road systems have been designed for years for us drivers to be able to survey the scene ahead,” Herman added. “Cameras must see visible light quicker than our eyes can so they can survey the scene in the same way.”
Michigan-based Dataspeed is unique most notably in how and why the company exists. One of the things necessary to get consumers behind automated driving is to humanize the technology – to take all the gadgets, sensors, cameras, and modules and attach a meaning everyday people can understand. Dataspeed is a master at this by way of an unfortunate tragedy. The company’s Chief Executive Officer, Paul Fleck, lost his dear cousin Mary in a tragic accident.
“Mary pulled out into oncoming traffic and suffered a side-impact collision – her view was obstructed due to the terrain and she did not see the oncoming vehicle,” Fleck explained. “Had V2V (Vehicle to Vehicle Technology) been available then, both of these vehicles would have communicated and she would have known about the oncoming vehicle, even though she could not see it.”
With the relative newness of autonomous driving, there will be questions from the car buying public. And not every buyer will understand (or even want to) the in-depth engineering behind vehicle perception technology. However, what will resonate with them is losing a loved one. As the autonomous landscape unfolds, Dataspeed can understand and even meet consumers where they are.
“I tell my team their work will result in saving someone’s life someday, although we will never know the name of that person,” Fleck said. “Anybody working on autonomous vehicles is, in some way, moving up the timeline where cars will be safer to drive, and this will result in less fatal accidents.”
Dataspeed’s ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance System) Kit helps optimize autonomous vehicle development. The ADAS Kit takes control of the throttle, brake, steering, and shifting, to assist in the testing of sensors and other elements as they relate to autonomous vehicle applications. Let’s say I am developing a particular sensor or algorithm, or maybe even an entire autonomous vehicle system. I have the ADAS Kit installed, including the drive-by-wire hardware, power distribution system, and vehicle network interfaces, so I can continue developing my sensor, algorithm, or autonomous system. Through Dataspeed’s kit, I am able to save time and conduct much more efficient testing becasue those aforementioned vehicle systems are already covered.
“We recognized early on that the autonomous vehicle community needed a safe, reliable, and cost effective development vehicle,” Fleck said. “We then developed a complete turn-key system that works in a Lincoln MKZ or Ford Fusion/Mondeo that enables computer control of the vehicle’s throttle, brake, steering, and shift systems, and is the foundation for a fully autonomous development vehicle.”
Currently there are over a 100 vehicles equipped with Dataspeed’s ADAS Kit, and the company is working on core algorithm development and new hardware products.
“The engineers at Dataspeed are constantly thinking about ways to help,” Fleck said. “Regardless of what we develop and produce, it will be as safe, reliable, and cost effective as our ADAS Kit.”
Leuven, Belgium is an area synonymous with innovation and XenomatiX is no exception, a high tech company focused on automotive vision solutions. After studying OEM requirements, Xenomatix developed an advanced form of LiDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging. LiDAR measures the distance to a particular point by illuminating it with a pulsed laser light; the reflected pulses are then measured to determine how far away said point is. From there, 3D representations of the point and surrounding area can be made. Bats actually use a similar process with sound waves to navigate.
“Our LiDAR solution can calculate the 3D geometry of the car’s environment up to a range of 200 meters,” said Kris De Meester, Vice President of Business Development. “One of the reasons why almost everyone is convinced about LiDAR with regard to autonomous vehicles is the range and accuracy of the measurements.”
XenomatiX’s laser-based, solid-state vision system creates a high resolution pointcloud, giving a vehicle an accurate read of the road and detecting any possible objects. The data returning to the vehicle is essential for occupant safety, especially if there are unexpected surprises ahead.
“When you leave the driving up to the car, you need to know the objects around it and at what range they are,” De Meester explained. “We have a very good solution for solid-state LiDAR that’s small but robust in design and low cost for serial production.”
LiDAR has advantages in how it can see through fog or make out road irregularities that might be missed by other sensors or cameras. LiDAR is known for its accuracy regardless of weather conditions or time of day, be it morning or night. However, XenomatiX goes a step further, incorporating a unique multi-beam projector and pulsed illumination scheme. The combination allows for the simultaneous projection of thousands of laser spots in a dense pattern, which substantially reduces “false alarms” by generating millions of measurements per second. In other words, it’s extremely precise and such precision means greater safety for automated vehicle occupants.
“In my opinion LiDAR will be needed for autonomous vehicles,” De Meester added.
The company also implements short and long range optical sensors for many of today’s driver assistance and road obstacle detection systems. All offerings from XenomatiX are carefully planned and based on extensive research.
“We have been talking to a lot of OEMs because we need to know all the requirements,” De Meester explained. “Many of the technical designs today are made around the OEM requirements.”
Our list here is by no means exhaustive – there are many brilliant people and companies working on autonomous vehicle technology. However, as the autonomous world becomes more clear, we believe Imatest, Dataspeed, and XenomatiX, with their range of experiences and innovations, will benefit us as future autonomous drivers (or riders). Given our recent experience at AutoSens, we recommend learning more about them if you are interested in driverless vehicles and how the technology is progressing. This September, AutoSens returns to Brussels, Belgium with a full lineup of expert speakers, in-depth workshops, and vehicle demonstrations.
“AutoSens brings together different layers of industrial disciplines, from financial to pure technical engineers, to higher level management,” De Meester said. “All of them are talking about and figuring out the issues and challenges with automated vehicles.”
Carl Anthony is Managing Editor of Automoblog and resides in Detroit, Michigan.