Dec 11, 2019

Self-driving vehicles: lighting that communicates

Category: Automotive

In the near future, our vehicles will drive us unaided from point A to point B. This impending revolution will also affect automobiles’ exterior lighting, whose role will expand from visual aid to a means of communicating with other road users.

With several prototype self-driving vehicles already running on roads in Asia, Europe and the United States, management consultants McKinsey forecast that driverless cars will account for 15% of new car sales in 2030 - in other words, tomorrow. In self-driving applications, artificial intelligence is an almost scarily effective technology, able to guide a vehicle without human intervention and interact safely with the surrounding environment and other road users.

While self-driving vehicles are revolutionizing cars and the way we use them, they are also changing the car’s essential features as we have always known them. Take exterior lighting, for example. Essential for the safety of drivers and other road users, lighting helps us see and be seen. But what happens when cars become driverless? In such circumstances, ‘seeing and being seen’ is updated to ‘seeing and detecting’ and ‘being seen and communicating’.

Without drivers, and thus logically without the need for visual interaction with other road users, the vehicle itself must learn to communicate. Just like how half the surface area of the human brain or cortex is involved in sight and cognitive perception, the lighting on a vehicle can serve as the “eyes” of the car to sense and interact with the environment. Many OEM suppliers, research laboratories and universities are currently working on utilizing light signals to improve cognitive perception and communication between self-driving vehicles and road users.

‘Seeing and detecting’ and ‘being seen and communicating’

New lighting and display technologies, such as micro LEDs and micro optics, are starting to appear on the latest models of automobiles. What they offer, for the first time ever, is the ability to project information onto the road surface, alerting other road users and pedestrians to the vehicle’s intended movements or a potentially dangerous situation.

Such new functionality can be integrated into the headlamps or taillights, as well as the front or rear bodywork or even the car windows. This revolutionary development, which blends lighting with communication, could in time be rolled out for widespread use, provided a common, internationally-agreed visual language is found.

Regulation will play a key role here. Although growing numbers of industry experts, backed up by research bodies, are developing their expertise, much remains to be done. Yet we are starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.

To put it another way, exterior vehicle lighting will enable the creation of a whole discipline of light-based communication. If such technological developments seem a long way off from the lighting we know today, they nonetheless point the way forward on a fundamental concern: improving the safety of road users, whether drivers, passengers or pedestrians.