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There’s a Leddartech solid-state LiDAR among the lighting and reflective elements incorporated into Magneti Marelli ‘Smart Corners’ headlamp module. (Lindsay Brooke) 

Automated-vehicle ‘goiters’ be gone!

Warts. Bumps. Blisters. Protruberances. These and other less-flattering terms are used by vehicle designers and engineers to describe the bulging, non-integrated sensor placement that has become the unfortunate visual signature for automated vehicles.  

“We actually call them ‘goiters,’” said Bill Grabowski, head of innovation and technology for automotive lighting at Magneti Marelli. “While they’re done to fit a function, primarily that of testing and development, the OEM and the end customer don’t want to see these protrusions in production. Packaging up to 15 sensors that handle all levels of ADAS and autonomous driving has become a major problem for the automakers.”  

He described the current AV-development practice of distributing the sensor array all over the vehicle exterior as “a very complex, heavy and costly equation.”  

Grabowski spent many years in Jeep/Truck development at FCA, so he’s well versed in the arm-wrestle that occurs when engineering needs to incorporate a new technology into a vehicle’s exterior surfaces. LiDAR in many of its current form factors can be tough to package cleanly, he notes—and there are various schools of thought on whether a single, central LiDAR per vehicle, or an array of LiDARs, is sufficient.  

The growing focus on AV aesthetics—eliminating the ‘warts’ in the skin while simplifying the sensing-system architecture and refining aerodynamics—led Magneti Marelli in 2016 to work up a solution it calls the ‘Smart Corner.’ Now in its third generation and under evaluation by multiple OEMs, Smart Corner congregates elements of the AV sensor array into the headlamp and tail lamp modules.  

The designs can accommodate any sensor technology that’s currently in use and under development, including LiDAR, radar, cameras and ultrasonics, according to Grabowski, along with the latest LED-based lighting tech, including digital light processing and adaptive beams. 

“We’re aggregating all of these features into the four corners for the same reasons that vehicle lighting ended up on the corners 100 years ago: it’s the location that provides the most effective field of view,” he explained. The only visual difference versus the lighting on today’s vehicles is the potential need (depending on vehicle application) to extend the outer surface of a module a few millimeters outboard of the vehicle sides, in order to provide an unobstructed sensor view rearward. 

Plug-n-play modules 

Smart Corner concept feasibility work and development is centered in Magneti Marelli’s Auburn Hills, Michigan, facility, with pre-development handled by the company’s Reitlingen, Germany, engineering group. A development partnership with Leddartech is focused on solid-state LiDAR design (based on he proprietary LeddarCore SoC) and integration within the modular-headlamp format.  

For Grabowski’s advanced-tech team, the prospects offered by the essentially turnkey Smart Corner are exciting. “Compared with a distributed-sensor approach, we can eliminate all the bracketry, wire runs and communication leads,” he told SAE’s Autonomous Vehicle Engineering. “We can integrate it aesthetically and make it look beautiful, same as we’ve done over decades with vehicle lighting, which is the most highly regulated system on the vehicle.” 

For OEMs, the Smart Corner module arrives at the vehicle assembly plant as a complete plug-and-play unit. “It’s literally one connection at the assembly plant instead of four or five,” he said. “The module will be a higher quality part, lighter weight, and ultimately, less expensive than separate sensors.” 

Systems cost/weight analyses conducted by Magneti Marelli, using a Chrysler Pacifica, compared the Smart Corner modules to a typical distributed-sensors approach, similar to that seen on the Pacifica development fleet minivans used by Waymo. According to Grabowski, the Smart Corner approach realizes “a $40-$50 cost-save” per vehicle, with a mass reduction of five to six pounds compared with the typical distributed-sensor array.     

Development challenges remaining include mitigating the heat generated by the lighting and sensors within each corner module. It’s the classic “no free lunch” engineering scenario.  

“The LED lighting emits less heat facing forward than comparable halogen bulbs—that’s an issue we already deal with in keeping ice from forming on the lens,” Grabowski noted. “But the LEDs in these applications generate significant heat rearward, out the back of the ‘box’. Add a radar element that requires, let’s say, six watts, and there’s potential to pump out some decent levels of heat in each corner.” 

Addressing the thermal-management concerns, the Magneti Marelli engineers decided to actively cool the corner modules, using small, internal cooling fans similar to those the company uses on its premium lamps.  

Close examination shows the Smart Corner approach to be a microcosm of systems integration. Magneti Marelli will handle nearly the entire vehicle-integration task: “It’s function-checked, and pre-calibrated at our plant,” he said. “The automaker installs it as a module, like they do a conventional headlamp. Some post-installation calibration is needed, in line with the way we do headlight-aiming today.”  

Internal testing and in collaboration with the OEM pre-development partners is currently at the detail level, “to thoroughly understand system performance,” Grabowski reports. “We’re happy to say this product has considerable ‘traction’ within the customer base.” 

He said Smart Corner can be made truly beautiful—and the sensors transparent to observers—"as long as we’re working with the OEM’s design studio early in the vehicle-development. As it turns out, it’s the Styling guys who are now our biggest supporters for this technology.”  

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