From a Vision to High-Volume Production
The automotive industry is dabbling in driverless cars. The vehicle of the future is making its way through traffic with LIDAR technology – and creating a market worth billions. And First Sensor is equipping leading manufacturers.
When a company that originally specialized in acoustics starts developing LIDAR systems for fully autonomous vehicles, this shows courage, enthusiasm and a good deal of stamina. After all, the North American developers did not give up when they failed to reach their goal with their technology in the second DARPA Grand Challenge in 2005. The competition was set up by the innovation agency of the US Department of Defense to promote the development of driverless cars. This was also the year that the company first contacted First Sensor and asked for avalanche photodiodes (APDs) that detect invisible light signals with an internal magnification mechanism.
Optoelectronics as founding expertise
During the development of APDs started in 2000, First Sensor was able to build on the founding expertise of former employees of the Werk für Fernsehelektronik, the television electronics plant that laid the foundations for the current group in Berlin in 1991 with its expertise in optoelectronics. In industry, the company has long been a valued provider of high-performance diodes, used to measure lengths, for example.
Use in Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), on the other hand, had been a niche area for more than ten years, which meant that when the customer inquired there was no suitable standard product. However, the sensor experts recognized that an interesting market was in the making. Together with the customer, it was therefore decided to implement a tailored solution. Following successful sampling, an APD array went into series.
Our high-performance diodes measure light pulses in the nanosecond range. As one of the leading manufacturers, First Sensor also develops and produces array solutions for LIDAR systems.
In the same year, the vision of autonomous driving also reached the mass media. The starting signal for the competition on the automotive market: The manufacturer of LIDAR systems got into discussions with other players, with the result that First Sensor had to step up its unit quantities very quickly and adapt the infrastructure accordingly. Within the last two years alone, the unit quantities supplied have increased ten-fold, with this number set to rise even further. To lay the basis for further growth, First Sensor experts regularly travel to the USA and discuss the challenges facing them in order to take the step towards high-volume car production together with the customer.
Levels of autonomous driving
Level 0: Driver only – the driver drives.
Level 1: Certain assistance systems such as adaptive cruise control (ACC) help with operation of the vehicle.
Level 2: In a partially automated vehicle, assistance systems make driving easier for the driver with functions such as automatic parking or lane keeping.
Level 3: This is a highly automated vehicle that automatically controls functions such as triggering the turn signals or changing lanes. The driver takes control as required.
Level 4: This a fully automated vehicle, and the vehicle is controlled by the system at all times. The driver only steps in if the driving tasks can no longer be performed.
Level 5: Apart from specifying the destination and starting the system, human intervention by a driver is no longer required.
New APD generation is in the pipeline
First Sensor has also successfully provided other companies with samples of APDs. Even today, they are ensuring greater safety in road traffic in modern ADAS, and they are shortly set to facilitate new mobility offers such as car-on-demand services. In addition to customized solutions, the introduction of a standard product is also planned in order to be able to better serve the high demand. Furthermore, First Sensor is currently developing the next generation of APDs. The areas of focus include further miniaturization of products and a high level of integration of the detector and electronics. Both will further enhance the performance of sensors.
It will certainly be a few years before drivers can rely on fully autonomous level 5 and take their hands off the steering wheel altogether. However, once we have reached that level, First Sensor will be on board just as it is this year with the first level 3 vehicle approved for road traffic.