Autonomous car: Valeo’s laser will revolutionize automated driving

In July next year, motorists across France will encounter this amazing sight: On the motorway or the congested highway, a luxury limousine moves slowly in line, while the driver will quietly be immersed in reading from his newspaper … France becomes truly the second European country, after Germany, to allow the marketing of certain cars capable of driving in autonomous mode at level 3. That is, without the driver keeping his hands on the steering wheel, as hitherto required by the rules applies to vehicles equipped with a semi-automated driving function.

We owe this magic trick in part to the French equipment manufacturer Valeo. With its 20,000 engineers spread around the world and its 2 billion euros invested each year in research, an effort comparable to Gafams, it has become one of the world leaders in lidar (“light detection and distance measurement”). : a radar of the third type which is considered as a key piece in the development of advanced autonomous driving.

Today, only two cars are approved internationally to drive in this type of driving delegation, where the legislation is favorable for it: the latest Mercedes S-Class and Honda Legend Hybrid EX (Japan also allows level 3 autonomy).

“They have one thing in common, both are equipped with Scala 2, Valeo’s lidar, combined with a complete system of sensors”, welcomes Geoffrey Bouquot, director of R&D and strategy for the company’s autonomous car. That day, the engineer was in Detroit, the Mecca of the American car, where he rounded off the meals to pay tribute to the benefits of the internal system, whose purpose, of course, is to improve road safety: 90% of injury accidents are linked to human factors. And since the advent of driver assistance systems (automatic lane keeping, emergency braking, etc.), we are increasingly dependent on technology to reduce this percentage.

We often ignore it, but on the autonomous car, France abounds with initiatives. Researchers, such as CEA, Inria, Vedecom or Gustave-Eiffel University, participate in large-scale projects with manufacturers (Renault, Stellantis, Valeo, etc.), engineering companies (Akka Technologies…) and start-ups to accumulate knowledge. Valeo’s system, which took ten years to develop, has benefited from these partnerships. And he has a magic side.

Located in the front bumper, the device scans the vehicle’s surroundings at 360 degrees using infrared laser beams when a conventional radar uses waves. These rays bounce off surrounding objects and return to the lidar, whose software and artificial intelligence-based machinery interprets everything it has seen. At the same time, the lidar measures the distance of objects to the nearest centimeter and their speed if they move. Day or night, whether it is raining, windy or snowing, nothing escapes his lynx eye: trees, people, vehicles, infrastructure elements …

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Based on this amount of information, to which is added data collected by radar sensors and cameras and a constantly updated HD map, the car makes decisions. It is then the manufacturer’s software that comes into play, with the latter taking responsibility for the maneuver. Thanks to the combination of different sources of information, he believes that security is guaranteed. “A radar is susceptible to electromagnetic interference from high-voltage power lines or the abundance of surrounding metal objects, and a camera can be sensitive to bad weather. But if you add a third sensor like the lidar, the device may not detect an obstacle,” he said. Vincent Abadie, Vice President and Autonomous Driving Expert at Stellantis. The manufacturer with 14 brands plans to equip its top models with this type of equipment from 2024.

Of course, Valeo is not the only one developing lidars, which according to professionals should represent a market of 50 billion euros by 2030. A crowd of start-ups are interested in it. In Europe, big players like Continental or Bosch are very active in the niche. In the United States, Waymo, Google’s subsidiary or even Velodyne are skilled, especially in the robot taxi market. But on the passenger car side, the Valeo is still ahead. “Currently, we are the only ones delivering technologies of this type that meet the automotive industry’s quality standards and are produced in series,” recalls Geoffrey Bouquot, expert house. And it’s not over.

The standard for the marketing of highly autonomous vehicles, established within the framework of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), currently sets certain limits. In particular, it clarifies that the system can only be activated in the event of heavy traffic, on the motorway and at a maximum speed of 60 kilometers per hour. It is under these conditions that the driver can devote himself to anything other than driving a car. Like surfing the web, checking emails or watching a movie on the central screen.

But the norm could quickly change. “Within two years, we plan to expand the system to 130 kilometers per hour. The service provided will range from traffic jams to motorway driving,” said Jérôme Paschal, technical director of UTAC, a specialized group in vehicle testing and homologation.

Good news for Valeo. Because the company is already ready to follow this development. Last November, it presented the third generation of its lidar, the production of which will begin in 2024. Unlike its predecessor, it is capable of operating at high speed. Its performance is tenfold, with a resolution multiplied by 12, a viewing angle of 2.5 and a range of 3 to reach 200 meters. The equipment manufacturer, which estimates that 30% of high-end vehicles sold by 2030 will be equipped with a Level 3 autonomy unit, has a motorway ahead of it.

Dozens of young French companies are betting on the autonomous car market

Hundreds of computers are needed to control every function of the vehicle, and the proliferation of sensors will further increase their number. The result of a partnership between CEA and Renault, Ile-de-France start-up Alkalee has developed a centralized computer that combines all the features. Tesla was the first manufacturer to explore this path.

The optical sensors in self-driving cars must be operational regardless of the weather. ClearDrop, a start-up from Marcq-en-Barœul (59), has developed a technology that uses surface acoustic waves to quickly remove water, condensation, frost or snow. The system is mainly used to clean cameras and lidars.

These two young shots specialize in inertial navigation devices that are able to take over when the GPS is not working, for example in tunnels. Equipped with gyroscopes, accelerometers, magnetometers, these systems that provide high precision position and orientation equip submarines, tankers and aircraft.

The autonomous car will increasingly also be electric and will be able to recharge its battery without human intervention. Gulplug, a start-up company from Grenoble, offers a smart connection system. Once the vehicle is located above a power source located on the ground, the socket falls off the car and is automatically connected to it using magnetism technology.

In situations where the sensors to control the vehicle are hampered (intersections, etc.), the quality of the connection is crucial. YoGoKo has developed a software platform (3/4 / 5G, Wi-Fi) that allows communication with other cars as well as with the infrastructure to refine the instructions. The autonomous shuttler of the French navy uses it thus.

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