Could ‘smart cars’ see around corners? It’s closer than you think…

With all the smart devices appearing in our lives, the quest is always to make them as smart as a human being in some areas, and smarter and more reliable in others. And that’s certainly the case with smart cars.

Now, a new development could see such cars getting really smart and leapfrogging over what human beings can do. No, it’s not just about parking better than we do – in this case a smart car might actually be able to see around corners.

That would be a key development in convincing people the driverless car could be better than one driven by a person. It could prevent accidents by seeing whether a person, animal, or some other kind of obstruction was in the road ahead but not yet visible.

The Telegraph reported that engineers have developed a new ultra-sensitive laser technique which can be mounted on cars to spot upcoming hazards in an adjacent street, even when they’re entirely hidden from view.

Lasers are already used on driverless cars, to help them sense the world around them and give them superior parking abilities, for instance. But this would take them to a whole new level.

“It sounds like magic but the idea of non-line-of-sight imaging is actually feasible,” said Gordon Wetzstein, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University. “If your car could look around the corner it could make decisions, probably more reliably and further ahead of time. This is a big step forward for our field that will hopefully benefit all of us.”

How does it work? It fires pulses of laser light onto a wall. They bounce off onto a hidden object. Tiny amounts of light reflect back from that object onto the wall, and these are picked up by a powerful photon detector, we’re told.

Of course, that could also be a recipe for chaos. The important thing is that it can distinguish what the object is, what it’s doing, whether it will still be in the way by the time the car gets to it, whether there are other objects or people that are around the corner but not actually in the way and so on.

It’s not that smart yet, but the engineers seem to be getting there… up to a point. The image is returned to the car in less than second and while it’s not exactly billboard quality, it will do the job.

At the moment it works best for distinguishing very reflective objects such as the reflective sections on trainers or safety jackets, as well as traffic signs. But the engineers say that at the moment, non-reflective clothing is still a problem.

Still, within a few years they could well have cracked that problem and opened up a whole new world of truly smart cars.

For more on cars of the future, read our CES 2018Top Technology Trends report. 

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