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For perfect self-driving, look under the road

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An American tech company called WaveSense is betting that Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) will be the next big thing in the development of autonomous driving. The opportunity they see is that current LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology used in self-driving prototypes has a worrying weakness: the range and image quality decrease if there’s rain, snow or ice around.

The GPR concept is that if you scan up to about 3 metres below the road surface, you get a unique digital map that is accurate to between 4 and 6 cm. The plan is to scan all roads once, like Google has done to create above-ground maps. Self-driving cars with their own GPR systems would then re-scan the earth as they drive, matching their real-time scan to the master map. This process could keep your car centred on the road, whatever the weather conditions.

GPR technology was developed by the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for the US military, aimed at making vehicles safer in war zones by replacing the driver with an autonomous system. WaveSense, an MIT offshoot, is now taking the technology to the consumer market. The company believes that ground-penetrating radar could be a vital addition, or maybe even replacement, for LIDAR technology. Combined with all the other cameras and sensors aboard, it could certainly improve autonomous vehicle performance in bad weather.