One Finite Planet

Lidar/Radar & Maps: Fools-gold for Autonomous Cars


My mental Image of a driverless cars is a Google car with a very prominent LIDAR device on the roof.

But on further reflection, it occurred to me that LIDAR is completely unnecessary.  In fact LIDAR and RADAR can both be short cuts that enable getting a close imitation of driverless technology without the intelligence required to sound driverless technology.  But it you have the necessary artificial intelligence,  LIDAR and even RADAR are not longer required.  Currently LIDAR is only present when the system definitely lacks the required AI and even RADAR can mask system inadequacies.

TLDR; Read the headings 🙂

Consider the following:

  • Background:
    • What Are the Problems to be Solved? What are the goals?
    • Fixing the Problems: Are humans just not equipped for driving? (Answer: humans are equipped).
  • What is needed to emulate a well trained, fully attentive human driver?
    • Eyesight, Hearing, Intelligence.
  • Lidar/Radar cannot substitute for Intelligence.
  • Detailed Mapping Is not the holly grail!
  • Better Sensors Work Well as Assistance, but not for Autonomous Driving on road shared with human drivers.
  • Current Driver displays are inadequate for progressing to autonomous driving.
  • Conclusion: The Current experience looks close to autonomous, but is fragile and unreliable


What Problems Can Be Solved? What are the Goals?

Why are we bothering to have automated vehicles?  Answer: Because there are two problems with humans driving cars:

  • If cars can drive themselves, costs will be reduced and time spent driving can be saved.
  • We may be able to eliminate human driver errors that result in accidents, which can result in injuries and even fatalities.

 Saving the time and costs.

This objective is simply economic. Can we produce the technology at an viable price. Some may be concerned that replacing commercial drivers will reduce unemployment, or that non-commercial driving can actually be pleasurable.  These are complex moral and subjective arguments, and outside the discussion of this page today. From a point of view of solving the ‘problem’ the concept is easy: same a human being needed to do the driving.

Reduce Vehicle Accidents through human error.

Road Accidents constitute a serious issue.  Some stats association from safe international road travel (more on the site):

  • Nearly 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year, on average 3,287 deaths a day.
  • An additional 20-50 million are injured or disabled annually.
  • Road crashes are the leading cause of death among young people ages 15-29, and the second leading cause of death worldwide among young people ages 5-14.
  • Each year nearly 400,000 people under 25 die on the world’s roads, on average over 1,000 a day.
  • Road crashes cost USD $518 billion globally, costing individual countries from 1-2% of their annual GDP.

Ok, the problems are serious, but what is actually the cause?  Are humans just not equipped for driving?

Answer: Humans are fully capable of being good drivers, they are just not reliably applied to the task, or trained for all situations.

Humans are capable of driving, the causes of accidents are humans not fully utilising their capability through:

  • inattention
  • driver impairment (tired, alcohol, drugs etc.)
  • risk taking

Some road statistics can be found here. While searching for stats I found lots of opinions rather than stats, and most of these are distorted, but each category always breaks down into one of the three above.  (I will post more detailed analysis of this another time).

An alternative answer of ‘it was beyond my ability to be driving safely’ can be true for conditions with snow and ice…. but has to be combined with ‘and I was unable to determine that it was unsafe’ otherwise this can also be reduced to ‘risk taking’.

Imagine a leading racing car driver paying full attention to the task driving you around all day – and not racing, but driving to with a margin of safety and the goal of avoiding the risk of accidents! I suggest if every car could be driven to that level all of the time, and the driver never distracted or impaired, the goals would be realised.

The problem is not that humans lack the capability to drive safely, it is that the do not always use their abilities to drive safely.

What is needed for cars to drive like a well trained human driver?

The Requirements: Matching a fully attentive human.

Humans use:

  • Eyesight: visual sensors and image processing.
  • Hearing: audio sensors and auditory processing.
  • Intelligence: Object recognition and behaviour prediction.

The main sensor for human driving are eyes that can (with the aid of mirrors) detect an image from almost any direction around the vehicle.

Auditory sensing and processing are used to detect events not able to be seen at the time, such as an approaching emergency vehicle or an unusual event such as an accident.

Intelligence uses the information from the sensors to build mental model of all in the surrounding environment:

  • each vehicle and the expected behaviour of that vehicle.
  • the road, and road surface and any obstacles.
  • traffic signals, intersections, and hazards.

Potential Improvements: Reliability and Focus and Multitasking.

All statistics support that humans are perfectly (or almost perfectly) capable of driving a car, with in the current defined limits, when fully focused on the task and not impaired in some way, or taking risks outside prescribed boundaries.

The problem is reliability, not ability. If a car could self drive as well as well trained and attentive driver who is not impaired or distracted, the car could avoid almost all accidents.

So how do humans drive?

The key ability is the AI to determine what is in the image, how objects in the image are moving and will move in the near future.

To replicate unimpaired, non risk taking human drivers, we need simple sensors combined with advanced AI.

The current limitation is that we have enhanced sensors combined with extremely primitive AI.

Autonomous driving requires the same level of ability as a human to drive safely, but always with full attention, without impairment or risk taking.

Lidar/Radar are limited as substitutes for Intelligence.

I have never seen any accident analysis that concluded: ‘If the driver only had radar in addition to his eyesight, the accident never would have happened.’

The main difference between human eyes, LIDAR and RADAR, is the visual information from human eyes requires far more processing to extract the necessary information. To accurately determine distance, data from human eyes must be fully mapped into a complete picture of the environment. RADAR and LIDAR both provide distance information without the need to form a complete picture of the environment. The resulting trap is that working without that incomplete map of the environment means the ‘driverless car’ will normally be working with a less complete picture of the environment than cars with with human drivers. An accurate vision system can determine all that is needed without the addition of RADAR or LIDAR, although the addition of RADAR can be very helpful to deal with poor visibility such are fog.

Using LIDAR:

There is an object of approximately XZY shape moving at precisely speed A and direction B.

Human Eyesight (processed by human brain):

There is a guy in a badly maintained 2012 Chevrolet in the next lane and he is looking for an opportunity to change into my lane.

Which sensor is detecting the most useful information?

Certainly the LIDAR sensor requires far less intelligence to produce somewhat useful information than is required to process the two visual images reaching each human eyes, but the reward for deep image processing is significant, and is exactly what is often lacking in current autonomous mode systems.

Detailed Mapping Is not the holly grail.

One suggestion is that some levels of autonomous driving will be able to operate only within specific pre-mapped environments. The concept is that using exact vehicle GPS position data, the vehicle will be able to construct a complete picture of the environment from the data already on file. Of course, this also requires that all dynamic objects such as vehicles are reporting their position live to the system, so that they appear on the ‘map’.

Now just imagine what happens when there is an accident that leaves a damaged vehicle on the road that is too damaged to report its position? Or a fallen tree that does not report its position?

Level 4 autonomy provides for operation within a Geofenced area. However, in practice, this can only work if the car is able to detect any mismatch between the conditions that allowed the area to meet the geofence criteria, and current conditions. For example, a road could be included in the geofenced area because the lane markings all meet the criteria for driverless cars to be able to detect the marking. However, a car self driving under such conditions needs to be able to detect absence of lane markings, and required driver intervention until such markings are again present.

Better Sensors Work Well as Assistance, but not for Autonomous Driving on road shared with human drivers.

RADAR and LIDAR are narrow focused sensors as the accurately determine very specific information about the environment.  Human eyesight is a far more general purpose sense, and determining even object size and distance from vision requires complex computation of many factors of the environment combined with a reference database of previous calculations and object pattern recognition learning, but the result is simply a far wider spectrum of data.

Humans make use of that far wider spectrum of data. While RADAR can perfectly accurately track the vehicle in front and is never distracted from that task, RADAR alone is poor data for predicting the vehicle in front is about the turn off, and thus is not breaking for an obstacle ahead of that car in front. Once the car in front has made the exit, the driverless system then has to deal with what is then revealed without planning in advance, and as a result the driverless car could then be on a collision course with whatever was previously in the RADAR ‘shadow’ and because of the vehicle that was until recently in front.

I have a car equipped with RADAR cruise. The system detects other vehicles not because it recognises the RADAR pattern of a vehicle, but because it detects movement of an object consistent with movement of a vehicle.  The system tends to track very few vehicles at any one time (it has the appearance of only tracking one vehicle), has very little data on what is being tracked and generally fails to recognise stationary vehicles. The system would crash into a vehicle if that vehicle has not be observed moving and I did not intervene.

Generally this system is a useful addition providing assistance, but is best used when the driver is fully aware of what the driver assistance ‘sees’, and more importantly will not ‘see’, so the driver knows what can be delegated, and what they as driver must assume is their role. The system is clearly not capable of stand alone operation.  The system does not pretend to be capable of such operation so this is no problem and can be used as a driving aid,  but a completely different approach with greater reliance on data derived from intelligent image processing is required to progress to stand alone operation.

Our regulations and entire road system is designed around humans. Extra capabilities such as RADAR can help with some tasks, but the system was not designed around these additional capabilities, it was designed around the combination of eyesight and ability to build a 3D picture of the environment that a human can build. Without a similar level of abilities, autonomous cars are not equipped to share that same system.

but without all of the information

Current Driver Displays are inadequate for progression to Autonomous.

Mercedes-Benz Distronic Plus

I have a display that shows only one other vehicle.  Hopefully internally, a full system would work with a map of all surrounding cars in a 360 degree view and be tracking what every other vehicle is doing.  Also, in a reproduction of what a driver would do, a system can also detect the stream of traffic ahead of the vehicle in front.  The current system I have displays none of this to me, but from what I have seen, neither does a tesla display.  If the system does have this other data, more should be displayed as we move on the journey to when drivers can be confident in their cars to drive autonomously.

Where is the display of all surrounding traffic including the line of cars ahead?

Driver Assist Technologies.

Conclusion: The current experience looks close to autonomous driving, but is fragile and unreliable.

A classic case of not realising what we do not know?  Current systems simply work with too little data. They need to apply far more AI, and despite adding radars and perhaps even lidars, are so far unable to reproduce what an attentive human driver can achieve using only their eyes and mirrors for sensors.

Taking a short cut to the ‘low hanging fruit’ of simplified data gets close, but is ultimately still provides less safely than attentive, focused human driver.   If there is the will, the technology can get there, but viewing all vehicles as identical and not bothering to build a full model of all surrounding vehicles and interpret their intentions can only fall short of a human driver.


Table of Contents


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The bad news is EVs won’t help in time to keep global warming below +2.0oC, or reduce emissions in the critical years up to 2040. The EV transition means things still get worse before they get better, until late as 2050. The problem is not the ‘long tailpipe argument‘, but the challenge of the transition to EVs. EVs do, over their lifetime, result in a reduction in emissions, but the whole process can take decades, does not alone solve immediate climate problem. Emissions can even be worse if too many people buy EVs too soon.

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Solar Electric Vehicles: What you can, and can’t do with solar power.

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Battle for No1 Carmaker: Tracking Tesla and BYD.

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These two are the current EV market leaders, and as EVs gain market share, these two are on trajectories to become no #1 and no #2 car carmakers world wide. But will either of them ever reach true #1?

I have excluded Tesla and BYD from the ‘new kids on the block’, page tracking the rise of new EV companies as the race between these EV heavyweights warrants its own page.

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EV Battery swapping: Recharge or Refuel?

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Every car ever produced is also powered by chemical energy, and either combusts the chemicals to release heat, or converts the energy to electricity to power the car.

Why is it that, we rarely get to choose between refuel or recharge?

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