Thermal cameras are much more than “night vision”
Thermal cameras are also distinct from low-light visible cameras, or what’s known as “near-IR” cameras, that require some visible light to operate. Often, these cameras have IR LEDs that illuminate the immediate area in front of the camera. Although this is effective for up to 165 feet (50 meters), roughly the range of a typical vehicle’s headlights, this drastically limits the available reaction time a typical passenger car may need to fully stop and prevent an accident.
For example, a typical passenger car traveling 65 miles per hour down a rural highway on a rainy night will need more than 50 meters to stop, even one controlled by AI with a nearly instant reaction time. Combining thermal imaging with LiDAR and radar can significantly outperform low-light visible cameras while providing additional redundant and consistent data in all lighting conditions (Fig. 4).
Bringing thermal to the masses with affordable cameras
Mass adoption of SAE automation level 3 (conditional automation) and above depends on affordable sensor technologies, the proper computing power required to process the incoming sensor data, and the artificial intelligence needed to execute driving commands that deliver safe and reliable transportation in real-world conditions.
A common misconception is that thermal sensors, with their background in military use, are too expensive for automotive integration on a mass scale. Thanks to advances in thermal-imaging technology, improved manufacturing techniques, and increased manufacturing volume, it’s becoming possible to mass-produce affordable thermal sensors for SAE automation level 2 and higher.