Tom Simonite

A View from Tom Simonite

Uber Project May Improve Autonomous Cars’ Vision

Uber’s collaboration with the University of Arizona could make laser mapping systems for cars cheaper and more practical.

  • August 25, 2015

Earlier this year Uber established a sizeable research lab in Pittsburgh to work on driverless cars. Today it announced a second project in partnership with the University of Arizona, to work on technology for “mapping and safety.”

Little more has been said about what the new partners will be doing. But a recent online post describing technology available for licensing from the University’s College of Optical sciences, which Uber is to work with, gives a clue. It describes technology that could make a smaller, cheaper version of the laser scanners that sit obtrusively on top of Google’s prototype driverless cars.

Autonomous cars use those Lidar scanners, as they’re called, to figure out where they are and what objects, such as pedestrians, are nearby. Those like the one on top of Google’s designs work by using spinning parts to direct laser beams out into the world, and can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The technology listed at the University of Arizona controls its laser beams in a different way and claimed to be cheaper. It uses a chip covered with tiny movable mirrors to steer them instead. “The promise of autonomous vehicles will need to utilize less complex and costly systems to become practical,” the page touting that approach says. It claims that the device could be used for autonomous vehicles, regular vehicles, and 3-D mapping. The listed inventor of the technology, assistant professor Yuzuru Takashima, couldn’t be reached by the time of posting.

Finding better technology for creating 3-D maps is just as important as inventing ways for autonomous cars to sense and interpret their surroundings to the dream of never having to drive again. Google’s vehicles have only been able to drive themselves more than one million miles on freeways and urban streets thanks to incredibly detailed 3-D maps that include every light pole and curbstone.

Getting its mapping technology and operations started appears to be a major part of Uber’s self-driving car effort. The company bought a digital maps provider, deCarta, in March this year. A statement by the governor of Arizona today said that as part of the new partnership, “Uber’s state-of-the-art mapping test vehicles” will begin operating from the University of Arizona’s campus.

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