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By Alberto Jessurun / November 17, 2021 / Blog

How Do Cameras Work in Self-Driving Cars?

Cameras promise to make vehicles autonomous, safer, and faster

Key Takeaways
  • Self-driving vehicles use radar, lidar, and cameras to see the road
  • Cameras and other sensors assess the area around them and create short- and long-term plans
  • As more self-driving vehicles fill the roads, they will share information with each other about what they perceive
  • Unlike humans, cameras don't make mistakes or get tired
  • Self-driving vehicles need multiple cameras that detect different angles and a range of distances 
Self-driving cars are here, and they don't need a driver to steer or pedal. So, how do they work? They use cameras plus other technology to detect what's happening on the road and guide the vehicle to the right decision. 

Right now, there are no fully autonomous vehicles on the road, but according to the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), they will be soon. There are five levels of self-driving cars — manufacturers are making level-two vehicles today and expect to be producing level-four vehicles in the next decade. 

To help you understand more about the techniques these vehicles use to drive themselves, this guide explains how self-driving cars sense what's happening around them with cameras and other technologies. 

Seeing the road

Self-driving vehicles use radar, lidar, and cameras to see. 

Radars use radio waves to create low-resolution images, and they can detect the size and speed of objects. Able to detect objects hundreds of yards away, this technology makes adaptive cruise control and emergency braking possible. 

Lidar uses laser light pulses to identify objects with higher levels of resolution than radar and can create a 3D model of the environment around the vehicle. Unfortunately, these sensors are very expensive, and they don't work in fog or dust. 

Finally, cameras offer the highest resolution images, and they can read road signs and markings. However, unlike radar and lidar, they can't provide numerical data. Instead, they rely on a computer to calculate the distance to objects. 

Navigating the path

Self-driving cars use lidar and cameras to assess the area around them. Then, the car's computer creates a map based on that information plus GPS data and IMU (inertial measurement unit) inputs. 

Then, the vehicle plans the safest and quickest path to its destination. This includes making a long-range plan to reach the destination, but also making numerous short-range plans that determine how the vehicle deals with obstacles, changing lanes, and passing other vehicles. 

Working together

At level two, vehicles are using automated functions such as cruise control and automatic braking, but they still require the active participation of a driver. As self-driving vehicles approach level-five automation, they will be able to drive themselves completely on their own. And to make that possible, they will need to communicate with each other. 

In the future, if one vehicle's cameras and other sensors detect an object, they will alert all of the other self-driving cars on the road. This level of communication makes it possible for cars to drive themselves, but more importantly, it improves the flow of traffic on the roadway. When one car encounters an obstacle, it alerts the other cars, and they automatically adjust their paths.

Cameras versus human drivers

Before self-driving cars can take over the roads, they must become better drivers than humans, and cameras are making this possible. Humans are an incredible species, but they make mistakes. They get tired and forget to pay attention. They can also look at the path in front of them and miss important information, which leads to a lot of accidents and other issues on the road. 

In contrast, a video camera never gets tired, and it doesn't make mistakes. A video camera mounted between the rearview mirror and the headliner sees everything in its path, and it tells the vehicle the correct response to take in a second. Although it may feel counterintuitive, a road full of self-driving vehicles will ultimately be much safer than a road full of human-driven vehicles. It will also be faster and more efficient. 

How cameras work in self-driving cars

Clearly, if you just pop a camera onto your windshield, it won't be able to drive your vehicle. Instead, cameras work with other advanced technology to drive a car. They are part of an architecture system that includes image-processing algorithms and a high-performance system-on-chip (SOC) with an integrated microprocessor. 

Using artificial intelligence driving methods (AI), self-driving cars perceive objects, but they also recognize and classify objects. Then, they leverage machine learning to improve their abilities in the future. For example, the cameras in a self-driving car will see an object that looks like a person on a motorcycle or a bicycle. Then, they will classify that image as one or the other and make assumptions about speed and movement based on the classification of the object. 

The vehicle also uses AI to distinguish minute details, such as the difference between the roadway and the shoulder of the road. With a very high level of resolution, the vehicle assigns every pixel in an image into a defined category, creating a flawless level of perception. 

Number of cameras needed

Self-driving vehicles need a variety of cameras. For example, a self-driving Tesla uses eight surround cameras to create 360 degrees of visibility at a 250-meter range. It also uses 12 sensors to augment its cameras. Some of these cameras focus on clear, close-by obstacles, while the others look ahead and plan for the distance. 

The future of self-driving cameras relies on cameras, but cameras also play a growing and expansive role in other types of technology, including security, surveillance, advertising, and more. Cameras will help take humans into the future. From allowing you to talk with your pet while you're at work to taking care of your commute, they are poised to change the world in big and small ways. 

Contact Unisol International to talk about cameras today

To learn more about the valuable role cameras can play in your organization, contact us today. At Unisol International, we help clients find, select, and implement the technology they need to bring their organizations into the future. 

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