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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Today's autonomous vehicles use a combination of cameras and other sensors to try to replicate human perception, but they still struggle, especially in bad driving conditions. New technologies under development could help fill the gaps by letting vehicles "see" and "feel" things from different perspectives.

Why it matters: The race to develop fully self-driving cars has hit a series of hurdles, with many industry experts now predicting it could be a decade or longer before their full-scale deployment.

  • That has inspired dozens of startups in lidar and other technologies in pursuit of a breakthrough they hope will finally make AVs possible.

Where it stands: Most AVs currently in development rely on a combination of 3 or 4 key sensor technologies, plus high-definition maps, to try to replicate the way human drivers perceive the world. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses...

  • High-def cameras are good at identifying objects, but struggle in poor visibility like rain or fog.
  • Radar can detect objects far away, even in bad weather, but not very clearly.
  • Lidar uses laser beams to create a 3D image of the car's environment, but struggles under certain lighting conditions.
  • Ultrasonic sensors can judge objects, but only at close distances.

What’s happening now: Startup companies are working to add additional layers of perception to help fill the gaps in AV perception.

WaveSense specializes in ground-penetrating radar that creates subterranean maps to help vehicles navigate through snow, rain and fog.

  • The MIT spinoff essentially creates a fingerprint of the roadways by mapping and tracking unique geologic patterns underground.
  • Above ground, the landscape is constantly changing. Below the surface, maps are static, which helps AVs see the road, even in situations like a driving snowstorm.
  • Originally targeted for military purposes, WaveSense's technology is now being tested by several AV developers and suppliers, and CEO Tarik Bolat tells Axios he expects to announce production partners later this year.

Tactile Mobility's software helps cars "feel" the road by generating real-time data about the physical factors like traction and pressure that impact the ride then feeding it into proprietary algorithms to optimize the car's performance.

  • Human drivers feel how a car handles through their seat and steering wheel. It's what enables us to steer out of a spin on icy pavement, for example, or recognize when we're hydroplaning.
  • The Israeli startup wants AVs to "feel" the bumps, curves and potholes under their tires, just as humans do.
  • Ford is among the companies currently testing the company's software.
  • The cloud-based data can also be valuable to municipalities and fleet managers by identifying up-to-the-minute road conditions, CEO Amit Nisenbaum tells Axios.

But, but, but: As more sensors and software are added to an already complex machine, the number of potential failure modes increases exponentially, making AV systems more challenging to validate, says Sam Abuelsamid, a senior research analyst at Navigant Research.

The bottom line: Redundant sensing systems could ultimately lead to safer systems, but meticulous work remains to determine how to perfect them.

Go deeper: The true cost of autonomous vehicles

Go deeper

Updated 7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers

President Biden speaking from Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Jan. 21. Photo: Yuri Gripas/Abaca/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A federal judge in Texas blocked the Biden administration from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine mandate for federal workers on Friday, citing the outcome of last week's Supreme Court ruling that nullified the administration's vaccine-or-test requirement for large employers.

Why it matters: It's a blow to President Biden's efforts to increase the U.S.' vaccination rates, though much of the federal workforce has already been vaccinated against the virus.