Lidar: The Long and Winding Road to AV Adoption

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Jason Palidwar

Tech advancements, especially in disruptive technologies, often drive down crooked, poorly mapped roads. AT&T’s Picturephone was introduced to huge fanfare at New York’s 1964 World’s Fair, but it has taken about 50 years for video calling to become ubiquitous. Its adoption was delayed due to cost, an inadequate supporting infrastructure, and concerns about security and privacy. And today’s manifestation of video calling is far from the original vision. Could autonomous vehicles (AVs) face a similar long and winding road to widespread consumer adoption and deployment?

Courtesy of Iridian Spectral Technologies Ltd.

Courtesy of Iridian Spectral Technologies Ltd.

Interest in AVs and their associated technologies has risen rapidly. My recent search for “lidar” on SPIE’s website shows 2× the number of results compared to a similar search for “telecom.” Many in the photonics industry have been eagerly developing imaging technologies — in particular, lidar components and systems — to facilitate vehicle autonomy. Autonomous vehicles, and by extension lidar, are clearly hot new markets with huge potential demand, but this interest is predicated on the adoption and rollout of increasingly large numbers of AVs over the next five to 10 years. It appears the steering wheel may soon be a thing of the past, but — considering all the challenges AVs face — how soon is soon?

The most obvious initial challenges for AV imaging systems have been the technical capabilities that enable safe and reliable self-driving, and their associated costs. Developments that address these challenges are ongoing, with a variety of imaging approaches (cameras, radar, and lidar in several forms, such as flash, scanning, and phased array) quickly maturing into products. Costs of these systems continue to fall as the systems evolve from R&D labs into volume manufacturing, generating cost savings through economies of scale. Our photonics industry has helped drive these technical and commercial solutions forward.

But AVs will soon cease to be just a technical or commercial challenge and become a macroeconomic, moral, philosophical, and legislative challenge. As with the Picturephone, the removal of technical roadblocks alone will be insufficient to pave the road to full deployment of self-driving vehicles.

For example, a negative psychology or an inherent mistrust often exists around machine control of human lives, as does an emotional fear of the unknown. Mistrust combined with our all-too-human overestimation of our own abilities can create a perception of dangers despite the reality of comparative safety. There are approximately 40,000 automotive-related fatalities per year in the U.S. alone1, and according to an NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) study, 94% of major accidents are caused by human error. AVs will only be deemed acceptable once their safety levels are demonstrated to exceed those deemed culturally acceptable by and for human drivers. Meanwhile, every accident involving AVs will make headline news, magnifying mistrust.

In addition to lack of trust, many people simply enjoy driving or prefer to maintain control of their own mode of transportation. Initially, this may not be a large issue because it is likely that AVs will be rolled out within the general population of non-AV vehicles. However, some of the biggest advantages of the AV will come in an environment of exclusively autonomous vehicles. In this scenario, human-driven vehicles will be banned and self-driving vehicles would be able to communicate with each other, functioning as one large transportation network rather than a conglomeration of independent entities. Once AVs are this far down the road, late adopters may have no choice. Will steering wheels need to be pried from their proverbial cold, dead hands?

The advancement of AVs will undoubtedly stimulate the growth and creation of new industries, but there will also be economic friction along the way, from the automotive insurance industry and from automakers themselves. Automobile insurance generates annual revenues of more than $275 billion in the U.S. alone, spread over 2700-plus companies that employ over 275,000 people2. As discussed, AV adoption will necessarily come with fewer accidents, leading to a reduced need for insurance. Additionally, insurance coverage will likely switch from the driver to the equipment itself (the cars or AV systems), and this potential for massive liability may slow deployment of AV imaging systems, because manufacturers will, rightly, tread carefully into a potentially litigious environment.

Finally, with the future vision of a full AV network, it will no longer be necessary to own more than one car, and perhaps not even one. Rather, we are likely to see evolution toward a shared autonomous vehicle (SAV) infrastructure of single-user public transport. This has the potential for major economic disruption, as well as for significant reduction in the environmental impact of automobile production and ownership. The massive industries involved in the production and insurance of human-driven automobiles are unlikely to give up the golden goose of human drivers without fighting for the opportunity to participate fully in the new transportation model.

The challenges of how and when autonomous vehicles and their associated photonics-based imaging and communication technologies will roll out are beyond the control of the photonics community. However, be aware that the road ahead may have potholes and roadblocks that could slow us all down or direct us down a different path.

Enjoy the journey, and safe travels!

Meet the author

Jason Palidwar is an account manager at Iridian Spectral Technologies Ltd. He has more than two decades of experience working in photonics with optical filters. He is a human driver but is ready to welcome our new robotic overlords.


1. R. Vardhan (Sept. 2019). Car accident statistics in the U.S.,

2. IBISWorld (Feb. 2019). Automobile insurance industry in the U.S. — market research report,

Published: September 2019
Lidar, short for light detection and ranging, is a remote sensing technology that uses laser light to measure distances and generate precise, three-dimensional information about the shape and characteristics of objects and surfaces. Lidar systems typically consist of a laser scanner, a GPS receiver, and an inertial measurement unit (IMU), all integrated into a single system. Here is how lidar works: Laser emission: A laser emits laser pulses, often in the form of rapid and repetitive laser...
lidarautonomous vehiclesAVSAV networkSAVsshared autonomous vehiclessingle-user public transportLidar Special Section

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