Panasonic has developed an image sensor 100 times as sensitive to light as existing technology.

That will enable self-driving cars to spot pedestrians, traffic signals and other objects instantly even at night.

The Japanese manufacturer aims to have a practical version ready as early as 2020 or so.

With the race to build road-ready autonomous cars heating up, so too is the competition in the electronics needed to make them work.

Image sensors, found in digital cameras like those embedded in smartphones, convert light into electrical signals. Sony enjoys a market-leading 40% global share and is chasing demand for automotive applications. Panasonic had scaled back its presence amid declining profitability in its semiconductor business. But the prospect of growth in high-end sensors has prompted it to resume development.

The company’s new design is made from a thin film of organic material rather than silicon, the stuff of most microchips. Panasonic developed the basic technology with Fujifilm. A proprietary circuit design reduces noise when converting light to electrical signals, while a modified electrode structure helps detect even faint light efficiently.

Conventional image sensors tend to get blinded by headlights or other sources of glare — a shortcoming that limits their ability to discern objects at night. Panasonic says its new sensor is sharp-eyed enough to make out the license plate number of a speeding car. The company envisions a range of uses besides self-driving cars, including surveillance cameras and medical equipment.

Sony, which has strength in CMOS image sensors, will begin mass-producing them for automotive applications in May. The company reports pushing its technology to the level of taking color images in nighttime settings less bright than starlight.

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