Driving a thermal-enhanced Lexus RX in Los Angeles
This is a Lexus RX 450h that's being currently being used as a test mule to showcase thermal-enhanced visual and cameras and the first thing you need to know is there's no technical reason for the flamboyant pink and orange livery. It just looks cool.
This otherwise unremarkable Lexus RX was built by Flir, an Oregon-based company specializing in thermal imagining, and it features a complex visual system comprising radars and 10 cameras. Six of these cameras are mounted on the roof along with a lidar. The lidar, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, is basically a radar, just a little more complex because it uses both light and pulsed laser to measure ranges. All six cameras come with thermal and nocturnal vision which is not affected by weather or brightness, meaning they will detect movement and temperatures even in pitch dark.
The lidar (and radars in general) is one of the best systems in the world for detecting an obstacle and even though it isn't very good at telling you what the obstacle actually is, it is extremely reliable when it comes to making you aware there's something in the way. This is where the visibility cameras kick in. There are four mounted on the front part of the roof rack, providing you with both long-range view (around 2-3 miles) and wide-angle view. Then, once visibility cameras have established what the object might be (people, lampposts, animals, etc), the thermal cameras help you understand whether the object is likely to interact with traffic or not, a deer coming from the woods for example. The whole system utilizes something called Neural Network, which is a fancy alternative to the term "AI", which means the computer has been trained to recognize an object and the information has been hard-wired into its "brain".
Flir say the idea is to utilize all three elements for Level 3 and Level 4 autonomous vehicles. The radar detects an obstacle, the visibility camera tells you what it is, the thermal camera tells you whether it is moving or not. Visibility cameras cannot tell the difference between a life-size poster or an actual person, thermal cameras can.
Left to right, top to bottom: visibility cameras, thermal cameras, radar and 360° thermal cameras
It's a very clever system and I'm not even sure I have the intellectual capacity to explain it to you properly so I'll just get back to the car for a minute. The RX450H features a 3.5 L V6 working with an electric unit for a combined power output of 308 hp. Flir say using a hybrid car was a necessity because the computers, the radar and the cameras simply cannot be charged by using the 12V on board battery charger.
The company also said they've got a contract with, and I'm quoting, a "well-known manufacturer which we can't name" and they're going to provide said manufacturer with this technology for an upcoming vehicle in 2021.
I think it's pretty cool. It is 2020 motoring and whether we like it or not, it's happening. Might as well tag along.