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From Sunshine to Snow: Self-Driving Car Manufacturers Face the Tough Weather Challenge

NetworkNewsWire Editorial Coverage: Self-driving cars are reliant on their sensors to see the world around them. After years of testing in favorable conditions, these cars are now being assessed in bad weather conditions.

  • Self-driving cars use a wide variety of different sensors.
  • Most testing has taken place until now in areas with good weather to work out the fundamentals of self-driving more easily.
  • More manufacturers are now testing their self-driving cars in adverse weather conditions.
  • This is revealing the strengths and weaknesses of different sensor systems.

Foresight Autonomous Holdings Ltd. (NASDAQ: FRSX) (TASE: FRSX) (FRSX Profile) has developed a sensor system that uses visible light and thermal imaging to see through fog, rain and snow, and has sold a prototype of the sensor to a leading global Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer. Thermal camera manufacturer FLIR Systems, Inc. (NASDAQ: FLIR) has adapted its technology to the needs of self-driving cars and recently released data to help all manufacturers test the effectiveness of thermal sensors. Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) has established a subsidiary specializing in self-driving and was the first to carry out tests on snowy roads. Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG), has established a self-driving technology center in Michigan for adverse weather testing. And critical software needed to support these essential sensors is being developed by companies such as nuTonomy, a subsidiary of autonomous vehicle specialist Aptiv PLC (NYSE: APTV).

Self-Driving Whatever the Weather

Self-driving cars are coming ever closer to actually hitting the roads, with major companies developing and testing completely autonomous vehicles. Some of the systems these vehicles will rely on are already in use, assisting drivers through features such as cruise control.

One of the biggest remaining obstacles standing in the way of marketing these vehicles is the weather. To date, much of the testing of these vehicles is taking place in a small number of areas with limited weather conditions, particularly the hot, dry desert of Arizona. This has been good for developing the fundamentals in relatively uncomplicated conditions, but now more thorough and varied testing is needed. People use their cars year-round in every country and climate. To be safe on the roads, a self-driving vehicle will have to be able to operate in severe weather conditions. As a result, the manufacturers behind self-driving cars have started testing the vehicles in a wider range of conditions. These tests are revealing the limits of some of the current sensor systems and making clear what adjustments will be needed.

Making Driving Safer

Self-driving vehicles are about more than just novelty or saving effort. They have the potential to save lives by removing human error.

Poor weather is responsible for 22 percent of crashes each year. High winds, fog, rain, snow and standing water can all lead to crashes if a driver doesn’t recognize and respond appropriately to the problems those conditions represent.

To truly save lives, autonomous vehicles must overcome those concerns. The technology that will make this happen is being developed all over the world, from design offices in California to factories in China to facilities owned by Foresight Autonomous Holdings (FRSX Profile) in Israel.

Testing in Tougher Environments

In the past few years, the big players in the American self-driving car game have started testing outside of their home ground. Ford has run tests on its self-driving Fusion car in Ann Arbor, Mich. Waymo has also started testing in Michigan while continuing to work in the sunnier climes of California, Texas and Arizona. Ride service Uber, always keen to cut its human resource costs, is testing cars in Pittsburgh.

Testing in tougher environments sets a challenge for self-driving cars on two levels. First is the vehicles’ ability to judge their circumstances and drive accordingly. Do the cars slow down appropriately on wet roads? Do they account for the reduced visibility of other drivers in fog? Can they avoid skidding in snow or mud and follow emergency procedures if their tires lose a grip on the road?

The second problem is more fundamental. Sensors made by companies such as Foresight are an autonomous vehicle’s eyes. They must work properly in all conditions, or a car’s self-driving equipment may be left blind.

Struggling Sensors

Companies are testing a wide variety of sensors for their self-driving systems. Some, including Foresight, use passive sensors such as various vision sensors. Others use active systems that emit energy beams out into the world and sense obstacles based on reflected beams.

Of these active systems, radar can be a useful addition in tough conditions, as it cuts through rain, snow and fog. But it doesn’t provide a detailed understanding of a complicated environment and therefore can’t be used to direct a car on its own. Lidar has different challenges. It can build up a complex picture of the surrounding environment but is vulnerable to interference from the weather. The sensor sends out rapid pulses of infrared laser light to see what is nearby. If one of these lasers hits a raindrop or snowflake, the car will believe that there’s something right in front of it, leading to a sudden, potentially dangerous stop.

The Power of Thermal Imaging

If these sensors underperform in poor weather conditions, what other options are available? The solution may lie in the style of sensor arrays created by Foresight.

Foresight’s QuadSight sensor system uses two pairs of infrared/thermal and visible spectrum cameras. Far-infrared cameras are much less affected by adverse weather than other sensors. They can see through fog and rain, providing a better view of the environment than other sensors — or even the human eye. Combining this thermal data with information from the visible light spectrum means that QuadSight produces a powerful range of data for a self-driving car.

The potential of this technology has led to significant successes for Foresight. The company has sold several prototypes to automotive manufacturers, including a recent sale to a Chinese company. With China becoming one of the largest markets for electric and autonomous vehicles, this sale is a major coup for Foresight.

The Self-Driving Sensor Sector

Thermal camera manufacturer FLIR Systems, Inc. (NASDAQ: FLIR) is keen to draw attention to the potential of these cameras for self-driving cars. The company produces thermal cameras with many uses, including in smartphones and drones. Its sensors are used in driver warning systems by General Motors, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. The company recently released a free dataset of annotated thermal imagery to help researchers and designers create better equipment and evaluate the effectiveness of sensors.

One of the automotive industry greats, Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) has invested heavily in self-driving vehicles. The company recently reaffirmed that commitment through the creation of Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, a subsidiary designed to push forward its automated vehicle work and make the most of the market opportunities this sector provides. Ford has taken a lead in preparing self-driving vehicles for difficult weather conditions. In January 2016, it was the first company to test an autonomous vehicle on snow-covered roads, and its recent introduction of further testing in Michigan shows its determination to solve the problems weather creates.

Google’s parent company Alphabet, Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) is heavily involved in self-driving vehicles through its Waymo subsidiary. Like Ford, Waymo has made use of Michigan to test self-driving systems in difficult weather conditions, including rain, snow and sleet. The company’s self-driving technology center at Novi, set up in 2016, gives Waymo the chance to work with local tech talent to develop better sensors and driving systems. With its efforts to develop self-driving trucks as well as cars, Waymo has the potential to bring automation to commercial hauling as well as passenger travel.

Autonomous vehicle specialist Aptiv PLC (NYSE: APTV) is making significant advances in self-driving technology, not least through its nuTonomy subsidiary. While Aptiv is involved in various aspects of automation, nuTonomy specializes in software for driverless fleets. Such software is vital to safe self-driving, as it processes the information coming from sensors, thus allowing vehicles to make driving decisions. The recent opening of a new technology center in Boston will help Aptiv and nuTonomy to develop the cars of the future, capable of driving in all conditions.

As self-driving cars are tested in a wider range of driving conditions, they face new challenges. Some sensors are proving more useful than others in adverse weather, and this may decide what technology eventually guides these cars of the future.

For more information on Foresight Autonomous Holdings, visit Foresight Autonomous Holdings Ltd. (NASDAQ: FRSX) (TASE: FRSX)

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