LiDAR Focus on Japanese LiDAR supplier Pioneer
Japanese electronics company Pioneer has big plans for electronics in autonomous vehicles. The firm has set up a dedicated new venture, Pioneer Smart Sensing Innovations, to concentrate on this specific marketplace.
By the 1970s, the company had established a respectable reputation as a manufacturer of high-fidelity audio and video components. At the same time, the firm added automotive electronics to its portfolio, initially under its own brand, but eventually under a separate sub-label known as Carrozzeria.
Carrozzeria is a word borrowed from the Italian language used to describe auto-body styling businesses such as the widely known firms of Pininfarina, Bertone, and ItalDesign/Giugiaro. These firms were responsible for crafting the bodies of some of the most famous sports cars in the world by automakers such as Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, etc.
The beginning of map-based car navigation
Starting in 1990, Pioneer's Carrozzeria components were the first devices to enable electronic street navigation by making use of GPS and LCD screens to present visual maps to drivers. These maps were created by another Pioneer division called Increment P Corporation for use in major metropolitan areas of Japan. Because the worldwide web didn't exist at the time, the company put its map data on CD- and DVD-ROMs that could be swapped in and out of Carrozzeria players.
Very rapidly, Carrozzeria equipment became more sophisticated. It began to get traffic data from a Japan-wide broadcast service called VICS created specifically for this purpose. Voice commands enabled control and destination setting. Data that it learned from congestion and traffic jams drivers encountered was shared and merged to make Pioneer's map datasets richer and more accurate.
In 2009, Carrozzeria navigation components began to get local information via cellular connections (what Pioneer termed "Air Navi"). In 2011, front-facing car cameras enabled Carrozzeria screens to display images enhanced by augmented reality (AR) graphics. In 2012, Pioneer took its AR system and applied it to a heads-up display (HUD) that overlaid the interior portion of cars' windshields.
Needless to say, these systems were among the most sophisticated car navigation electronics one could buy at the time they were released. Initially available only in Japan, Pioneer expanded its street and location data collection to include many other parts of the world. It soon started selling a wider range of its car electronics in Europe and the United States.
Pioneer entered the LiDAR market
As automakers began to experiment with autonomous vehicles, Pioneer sought to leverage its Carrozzeria experience for the development of self-driving car navigation systems.
Pioneer had already produced laser modules and tracking hardware for high-quality LaserDisc, CD, and DVD players for decades. Therefore, a move into developing laser light detection and ranging (LiDAR) systems for cars was a logical progression.
In 2019, Pioneer committed to partnering with Japanese camera equipment maker Canon to develop what it terms "3D" LiDAR. To Pioneer's rich experience in laser components, car electronics, and navigation systems, Canon adds extensive optical expertise that strengthens this partnership.
For mapping in new parts of the world, Pioneer has teamed up with Dutch enterprise HERE Technologies, which has map data for up to 80 percent of North America and Europe. Pioneer has invested in both HERE and Japanese firm Dynamic Map Platform Co., Ltd. to access optimal navigation datasets for its future LiDAR products.
But the company's quest for the best mapping doesn't end there. As autonomous cars equipped with Pioneer's LiDAR drive, they'll constantly capture new street and environmental information that will be fused with Increment P Corporation's existing datasets. This will create a continuously updating data ecosystem.
The process of creating environmental and positioning data on the fly is known as simultaneous localization and mapping, or SLAM. (Pioneer's version of it is called Super Fusion VSLAM, where the "V" stands for visual.)
Manufactured prototype LiDAR sensors since 2018
Since 2018, Pioneer has been manufacturing prototype LiDAR sensors to enable various functions. Most of these sensors use tiny micro electric memory systems (MEMS) laser mirrors to eliminate the need for expensive motors.
Narrow-focus telescopic MEMS sensors scan far ahead of a vehicle to sense long-range objects and obstacles. Medium-range MEMS sensors look at the area in front of a vehicle for pedestrians and other vehicles that might pose a hazard. Short-range MEMS sensors scan the area right around a vehicle to check for immediate incoming obstacles. And wide-view helical (non-MEMS) sensors look broadly for objects both in the front and in the back of a vehicle with a wide field of view.
In 2018, Pioneer began supplying LiDAR sensors to major automakers. The production LiDAR system to be made via the Canon partnership will employ all four of the above sensor types, in concert with map and environmental data. The intelligence of the system will be the NVIDIA's Drive PX platform, while interfacing can be accomplished via NVIDIA's DriveWorks software development kit.
Pioneer has stated it will start selling this system to autonomous carmakers in late 2020 for retrofitting to the roofs of their vehicles. In addition to selling LiDAR equipment, Pioneer has said that its long-range goals include developing algorithms for high-precision object-recognition, vehicle ego-localization, and difference-extraction of car surroundings.
The Pioneer Smart Sensing Innovations site contains plenty of information about the company's ongoing projects and technological innovations.