Pioneer’s Big Technology Bet

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Pioneer teams with Continental on infotainment

Pioneer has bet big on three tech areas for the future that are likely to eventually trickle down to the aftermarket.

“All three are important and the next big areas for Pioneer,” said Pioneer Exec VP Marketing Russ Johnston.

The company is heavily investing in LiDAR, driver recognition (like facial recognition) and digital mapping.

LiDAR relies on laser sensors.  The sensors measure distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light. Pioneer aims to make lower cost sensors that are smaller and have better long distance range for use in autonomous cars.  (That dome on top of the Google car—now called Waymo—is filled with LiDAR).

For the aftermarket, LiDAR could be placed on bumpers to act like proximity sensors for aftermarket collision avoidance systems. It could also be used for aftermarket vehicle-to-vehicle communications, said Johnston, as the sensors could help collect data that is then communicated between vehicles.

Pioneer is in a race to deliver lower cost radar along with many other automotive companies.  “We have a low cost product that is in prototype stage.  There’s a dozen or so players in this space that are all in prototype, trying to build low cost product…. Everyone is investigating how to evolve into fully automated driving and LiDAR is very critical to that,” said Johnston.

Pioneer’s goal is to make the LiDAR small enough to fit into the headlamp of a vehicle. Its strength is in longer range LiDAR.  The technology has difficulty detecting far away objects or dark objects and it has trouble identifying objects in snow or rainfall.  Pioneer aims to overcome these limitations by combining digital signal processing and object recognition, it said.

Pioneer displays LiDAR
Pioneer displays LiDAR

A second tech area for Pioneer addresses one of the key stumbling blocks for early autonomous cars…driver attention.   Here’s why.  The advent of true self driving cars filling up the roadways is years away-some say more than a decade away. That’s because there are still times, say in bad weather or unusual traffic situations, where near-autonomous cars (Level 3) will need a driver to take over.  And the problem with that is, once the driver is lulled into believing the car is doing all the work, it’s hard to get him to pay attention again quickly.

Many car companies say the driver must be able to resume control within 10 seconds.  But experts say, humans aren’t meeting the challenge.  The problem is so perplexing that Ford recently announced it won’t even try to produce a Level 3 car, it will just move right to Level 5 fully autonomous cars that never need a driver to take over.

But for those who want to see semi-autonomous cars in action soon, driver recognition technology has become critical to solving the problem of machine-to-human hand off.

Driver recognition includes facial recognition, or “Identifying the driver to know if he’s awake or not and ready to assume control of the vehicle,” said Johnston adding. It also includes heart rate monitoring, and steering wheel and seat sensors.  “Our goal is to have a business in this domain as early as 2020,” he said.

For the aftermarket, Johnston said, “We are confident that facial recognition would be part of the aftermarket as the camera cost comes down.”  He added that much of Pioneer’s contribution in this area is the software algorithms behind the sensors that Pioneer has developed.

Lastly, Pioneer also owns a digital mapping company called IncrementP On top of that it also just announced a partnership with HERE, a leading digital map maker, to combine Pioneer’s LiDAR and other technology with HERE maps to create autonomous driving platforms for car makers.

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