Mitsubishi Electric leaves us in the dark on its super-secret headlight-sensor

Operating in the dark – (c) Bertel Schmitt

Today at Mitsubishi Electric’s Tokyo HQ, we were given a preview of what the company will show at the upcoming Asia CES in Shanghai. We’ve seen an LED headlight that adapts to what is in front of us. While this may not sound revolutionary, hidden in the gadget that might escape Mitsubishi’s labs in a few years is something that might help autonomous drive solve a big conundrum.  

The asymmetric headlights of lore

Long ago have the ancient low and high beams turned into asymmetric shafts of light like the one in the picture, and by now we no longer blink at headlights that illuminate the road in front of us, while no longer dazzling drivers in the oncoming lane.

Wrap-around rays

But have we ever seeing a light pattern like the one in this picture? I have, today in a meeting room on the fourth floor of Mitsubishi’s swank office building near Tokyo’s main station.

And now for the possible conundrum solver: According to recent press reports, the alleged autopilot of a certain Californian carmaker has shown a propensity for running into stationary objects by the roadside. The detection and especially classification of such objects can be a bit tricky, especially when the CEO of said carmaker shows a disdain for LIDAR, or other kinds of 3D RADAR, and insists on doing the job with cameras alone.   

At night, the matter becomes super dicey: Modern headlights try to project a beam that won’t blind oncoming pedestrians, or bicyclists. This leaves them in the dark as far as the car’s cameras go.

And what do Mitsubishi’s futuristic headlights do?  When they notice a pedestrian, and using what Mitsuibishi call an “Adaptive Driving Beam,” they shine a directed spotlight at him or her, making the walker in the dark visible to driver and computer alike.  

Spot-on

But how can the headlights recognize an oncoming car so that they can thread their rays around it? And how the devil can it recognize a pedestrian walking in the dark, so that the car’s computer can better recognize a pedestrian walking in the dark? “With a sensor,” says the project’s lead engineer Kuniko Kojima.

According to her, the spotlight can illuminate objects 100 meters (330ft) away, and the sensor ill have a similar, or better, detection range.

Probed for the type of sensor, Ms. Kojima turns thin-lipped, and pointing out that it will be a few years until the unit will become available commercially, she asks for forgiveness if the secret sensor will only be unveiled at a later date.