BASF Colors Brighten Lidar’s Ability to Better See Vehicles

You may not notice the colors of cars around you when you’re driving, but when your vehicle takes the wheel, it will.

That’s the idea behind a technology that BASF introduced as part of its line of car colors for 2018-19. The global chemical company says it’s found a way to make it easier for Lidar sensors in self-driving cars to see dark-colored vehicles.

Lidar is one of the main sensing systems in most autonomous vehicles, along with cameras, radar and sometimes sonar. It shoots lasers at its surroundings and measures how the lasers are reflected back to determine what’s around the car in real time. Lidar is designed to detect objects hundreds of meters ahead, often farther than human vision. It can distinguish pedestrians, buildings, trees and vehicles by precisely detecting their shapes — but only if those objects reflect the near-infrared (NIR) radiation that the lasers project onto them.

Dark paints such as black, gray and dark blue tend to absorb the radiation, making darker cars less visible to an AV that needs to look out for them on the road, BASF says. The culprit tends to be carbon black pigmentation, used in most dark car colors, which naturally absorbs NIR radiation.

BASF claims it’s tackled this problem with Centripetal Blue, one of the hues in its 2018-19 Automotive Color Trends portfolio. When BASF designed this paint, it included what it calls functional pigmentation, an alternative to carbon black.

When NIR radiation from a Lidar sensor hits the dark basecoat layer of the new paint, it travels through that layer without significant absorption, the company says. Meanwhile, a coating layer that’s Lidar-reflective serves as a mirror to make the radiation bounce back.

Other car paint suppliers have weighed in on the Lidar issue, too.

Earlier this year, Axalta Coating Systems named a pearlescent white it calls StarLite as its color of the year, citing greater visibility to Lidar as one of its benefits. The company claims 40% of the world’s car buyers choose white. Widespread use of self-driving cars might require all cars to be light-colored in order to be visible to Lidar at 200 meters, the typical distance Lidar is designed for, Axalta’s chief technology officer said earlier this year, according to Repairer Driven News. Though the biggest concern may be fleets of fully self-driving cars eventually hitting the road, Lidar is also starting to appear in vehicles with advanced driver assistance systems, such as the Audi A8.

BASF announced that its functional pigmentation would allow manufacturers to keep making cars of many colors as AVs start to share the road.

Silver and white still dominate the US car market, according to the car data company Kelley Blue Book, though 12% of all cars sold are black, and dark colors are especially popular in the hot SUV, minivan and light truck categories.

But making dark cars easier to detect could be increasingly important, judging from BASF’s Color Trends Portfolio, which is a bit like a seasonal collection from a fashion house. The theme of the collection is “Keep It Real.”

“Dark colors, blue hues and complex effects represent the omnipresence of technology,” BASF noted in a statement. “Advancements in digitalization make technology become less visible and more intertwined with reality.”

BASF’s key color for the Asia-Pacific region is “Gray Ambivalence,” while for Europe, the Middle East and Africa it’s “The Urbanist,” a metallic anthracite. North America’s hue is a less-dark saturated blue called “Atomium Sky.”

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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