Supplement, Wheelers

Motor Mouth: Lasers will light up the automotive universe

Published : 02 Feb 2020 06:51 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 09:18 AM

My significant other lives an hour north of Montreal, just far enough into the Laurentians that her little cabin is literally encased in snow all winter. The local authorities use helping doses of both sand and salt, lest the roads become skating rinks. While that makes driving manageable, it turns the roads into veritable sandblasters full of grit and grime — so corrosive, in fact, that I’ve never once made it all the way to St. Jerome using the adaptive cruise control that’s becoming increasingly standard on our most advanced automobiles. Inevitably, some version of “system not available” message appears on the dash and cruise control is deactivated.

Now, the exact reason for failure varies. It might be as simple as ice or snow blocking the sensors. Maybe all the salt short-circuits the electronics. Perhaps the copious amount of sand used gums up its inner workings. Probably it’s a combination of all three. Occasionally — actually, rarely — I can reactivate the system with simple cleaning, but in most cases, a trip to a dealer is required to get the cruise control system working again. Whatever the case, I’ve never — not even once — cruise-controlled all the way to her house in the dead of winter. Didn’t matter what car I was driving; expensive German touring sedans and lowly Fords fail just as miserably. Complex, multi-sensor systems failed as regularly as simple, radar-based ones. In my experience, no automotive technology is more failure-prone than adaptive cruise control.

At first blush, having adaptive cruise control go on the blink is fairly inconsequential. After all, one still has a completely manual, one-computer-needed-thank-you-very-much right foot at your disposal. On the one hand, similar sensing devices will form the backbone of our self-driving cars to come; if something as simple as a cruise control system that maintains a set distance between cars can’t function reliably in our wintry conditions, how will the future’s totally autonomous automobiles be able to cope?

The solution, says Paul Rudy, one of the co-founders of SLD Laser, may be as simple as a new set of lights. Wait, lights? How can lights help you measure the distance from your front grille to the back bumper up yonder, you ask? Oh, light might help you see the car ahead better, but how the hell does that help your cruise control?

Well, these are special lights. In fact, they’re not really lights — as we know them, at least — but lasers. Rudy, now being the chief marketing officer at SLD, is trying to convince automakers not only can lasers emit more light — up to 350 per cent more than LED headlights — but SLD’s lasers can act as range-finders, and get this, transfer data from car-to-car. Yes, you’re reading that right; SLD says its lasers can double as both radar and Wi-Fi — actually, in this case, it’s called Li-Fi.

In other words, if you’re following along here, not only do SLD’s little modules replace your headlights, they could (as soon as more manufacturers get on board) replace all the radar systems now hogging space on your front bumper. Not only that, those very same laser beams can, in theory, transmit data at 20 gigabits per second; right now, Rudy says the technology is throttled to “only”  two Gbps, more than 20 times faster than the 5G networks that are supposed to be the future of car-to-car communications. Like I said, not only can these lasers light up the heavens with copious lumens, they can “see” what’s in front of your car, and if they don’t like what they see, start communicating with whatever they’re seeing. Rudy says that SLD’s LaserLight sensing technology can even create the 3D imaging that fully autonomous cars require. Incredible.

In fact, it’s these ancillary activities — the “radar’ sensing, data transfer, etc. — that I suspect will be the attraction of SLD lasers here in North America. Unlike Europe, where automakers can take advantage of a laser’s greater light output, North American lighting standards are so archaic that laser lights have to be seriously dumbed down so their major attraction (until regulations change, at least) will be the aforementioned sensing and data transfer functions.

And, oh, styling. It seems, at least according to Rudy, that the laser headlight module can be made extremely small while still projecting adequate lumens. How small? Well, again according to SLD, an entire high beam could be just one centimetre high, more than 60 per cent smaller than an equivalent LED headlamp and acres tinier than a halogen assembly. Indeed, considering how far away SLD’s range-finding technology is — prototypes will be on the road in 2023 — and the snail’s pace of headlight standard change, Rudy thinks the design freedom that SLD headlights engender may be the most engaging reason North American automakers adopt laser lights. Imagine that, a headlight so smart that it can “see” cars and transmit high-speed data, and the only reason it gets any attention is because it’s cute. What a weird world we live in.

More importantly, laser lights just might have a shot at beating Old Man Winter. Snow and ice are warded off thanks to heat generated by the lasers, and because the ‘lights’ are protected in the headlight module, the invasions of sand and salt should be thwarted. In other words, maybe someday, I’ll make it all the way to St. Jerome using adaptive cruise control.

— David Booth