Machine vision has long been used in automobile manufacturing, but until recently the technology was considered too expensive and technically demanding to use within cars. Now, however, machine vision companies have entered the in-vehicle market, targeting the safety and security sweet spot that many industry observers have identified.
A recent study by TRW Automotive Inc. reports that 74% of respondents say vehicle safety features and options are more important to them than they were five years ago. And all of the entries on Edmunds.com's Top 10 High-Tech Car Safety Technologies list—which the automotive information source recommends consumers look for when car shopping—are sensor-based.
It's no wonder, then, that market analyst The Freedonia Group Inc. predicts global demand for light-vehicle OEM automotive sensors will advance more rapidly than vehicle production itself—7.4% annually to $14 billion in 2010. Safety and security applications promise the greatest growth potential, Freedonia says.
A First for Machine Vision
Among the first to enter the in-vehicle on ramp is OmniVision Technologies Inc., which recently began supplying its CameraChips to a leading automotive equipment supplier for use in lane-departure-warning (LDW) and rearview-camera systems. Then there's the ground-shaker, Cognex Corp. This, the largest supplier of machine vision sensors, just got larger with its simultaneous entry into in-vehicle vision: Cognex has acquired AssistWare Technology Inc., maker of the SafeTRAC LDW system.
More Development Coming
Cognex chairman and CEO Dr. Robert J. Shillman expects the in-vehicle market to be "very large and potentially quite profitable." In the near term, Cognex says it will expand the external analysis capabilities of AssistWare's product to include collision warning, blind spot detection, headlight dimming, headlight aiming, rain detection/wiper control, and adaptive cruise control. In the longer term, Cognex plans to offer "inward-looking" sensors as well, to address applications now covered by other technologies. Among these are recognition of the driver and determination of the size and position of each occupant for intelligent air-bag deployment.
I think we're in for a ride. Last year SEMI (Semiconductor Equipment and Materials Institute), the trade group representing manufacturers of semiconductor equipment and materials, honored Cognex's leaders with its SEMI Award for North America to recognize their contributions to semiconductor manufacture. You might wonder, will Cognex and its ilk make a similar impact on in-vehicle operations?
John Lewis at Cognex points out that as machine vision improves the manufacture of semiconductors (including CMOS vision sensors), semiconductor materials improve machine vision—in a continuous loop. That's an interesting concept to ponder! I haven't figured out yet how cars might improve vision sensors, but it's clear that vision sensors are set to improve cars.