Thermoelectric Cooling: Paving the Path to AV Safety

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In a significant stride toward enhancing vehicle safety and autonomy, Phononic is set to integrate its thermoelectric cooling devices and related design and engineering services into Luminar’s light detection and ranging (LiDAR) systems, Phononic CEO Tony Atti told EE Times.

The supply pact between Phononic and Luminar represents a joint effort to redefine industry practices and create a solution for next-generation vehicle safety.

Phononic and Luminar’s supply pact sets to redefine industry practices.

“Today’s manufacturing supply chains require close collaboration to create and maintain quality, reliability and continuity,” Atti said. “Phononic worked closely with Luminar and their automotive OEM [original equipment manufacturer] customers from the beginning of their LiDAR design to optimize our thermoelectric platform to meet their challenging requirements. This … agreement with Luminar further cements this relationship and allows us to redefine best practices for next-generation safety while ensuring supply chain and manufacturing availability of cooling integrated solutions.”

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) promise to enhance safety, traffic efficiency and environmental impact. And LiDAR sensors are crucial for navigation. LiDAR sensors, which emit laser pulses to create a detailed map of the vehicle’s surroundings, work in tandem with cameras and radar to ensure safe driving.

However, while LiDAR tech has made significant strides, its limitations are becoming more apparent. To ensure the safety of AVs, tech firms need to achieve the highest levels of performance and reliability while mitigating tradeoffs between crucial requirements like range, resolution, frame rate and interference immunity.

Providing consistent temperature control for LiDAR systems in automotive applications poses several key challenges. One critical challenge is the need for cooling technology to rapidly respond to dynamic changes in the environment, including shifts in temperature and humidity. These cooling systems must be capable of near-instantaneous adjustments, seamlessly transitioning from cooling to heating as required.

Phononic’s Tony Atti.
Phononic’s Tony Atti

Atti told EE Times that meeting these challenges is crucial to ensure the reliability and performance of LiDAR systems in automotive applications, aligning with rigorous quality standards like AEC-Q10x and IATF 16949 certification.

One approach to improving LiDAR technology is enhancing temperature stability, which can be accomplished with thermoelectric coolers (TECs). TECs not only maximize sensor sensitivity but also eliminate temperature-related reliability issues that can affect LiDAR’s performance and power requirements.

“The LiDAR sensor is more than just optical and thermoelectric cooling devices; it must integrate into the vehicle and its electronic control system,” Atti said. “Beyond those technical challenges comes the harsh operating conditions typical in the automotive industry. … It’s an ecosystem, and each component and assembly must work in unison.”

Driving innovation in automotive safety

LiDAR systems leverage high-performance laser emitters and receivers to provide crucial data about the distance and nature of objects in the vehicle’s vicinity. This technology empowers drivers with advanced warning capabilities, granting them more time to react to potentially hazardous situations.

Furthermore, according to Atti, as the LiDAR market continues to expand, cooling technology innovation plays a central role in enabling the scalability and adoption of these systems.

As the automotive industry makes a significant shift toward autonomous driving and advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), the need for reliable and efficient cooling solutions becomes paramount. These systems rely heavily on a multitude of sensors, including LiDAR, radar and cameras, to perceive and interpret their surroundings.

LiDAR plays a crucial role by providing high-resolution 3D mapping of the vehicle’s environment. However, these sensors operate in a wide range of environmental conditions, including extreme temperatures. Ensuring the consistent and precise performance of these sensors is vital for the safety and functionality of AVs. Innovative cooling technologies address these challenges by maintaining the required temperature and wavelength stability, thereby enhancing the reliability and safety of autonomous-driving systems.

Traditional cooling methods may not suffice for the stringent demands of LiDAR technology in automotive applications. Phononic’s thermoelectric devices, with their precise temperature control and compact form factor, not only help LiDAR systems maintain peak performance but also contribute to the overall evolution of vehicle safety.

Cooling technology innovations can be seen as akin to the introduction of seatbelts, airbags and anti-lock brakes, as they enhance the reliability and functionality of autonomous and ADAS systems, ultimately bringing us closer to a safer and more efficient era of smart transportation.

However, for LiDAR systems to operate optimally and ensure vehicle safety, they require precise and consistent temperature control—even when subjected to the extreme environmental conditions encountered on the road.

This is where Phononic’s thermoelectric technology comes into play.

In the realm of automotive LiDAR systems, thermal management presents a critical challenge due to the extreme operating conditions faced by vehicles, from freezing Arctic winters to scorching desert temperatures. These systems rely on lasers and sensors that must maintain precise temperature ranges to ensure consistent performance, particularly in terms of wavelength stability.

Phononic’s cooling technology has played a pivotal role in addressing these challenges, collaborating closely with companies like Luminar from the early stages of LiDAR design. According to Phononic COO Jason Ruppert, by optimizing its TECs, Phononic enables LiDAR systems to achieve the necessary temperature control for long-range perception.

The advancement of LiDAR technology faces a critical challenge in ensuring eye safety, especially as it strives for high performance and extended range. Shorter wavelengths used in LiDAR systems can pose a significant risk to human eyes.

Utilizing signal delay to calculate distances, time-of-flight LiDAR sensors have been a mainstay in the field of distance-measurement technology. However, they have limitations, such as feeble return signals and interference susceptibility. The introduction of frequency-modulated continuous-wave (FMCW) LiDAR alters the playing field. FMCW LiDAR determines distance by chirping laser frequency and measuring the pulse between chirp and reception. It features signal amplification, noise resistance, and simultaneous distance and velocity measurements.

Operating at 1,550-nm FMCW, Phononic’s TECs empower manufacturers to reach detection ranges of 200 meters or more, providing the high-resolution imaging required for comprehensive vehicle perception. Due to 1,550-nm laser light sources and the selection of beam-steering technology, FMCW LiDAR faces obstacles, such as higher costs. The heat generated by 1,550-nm lasers necessitates cooling, with TECs playing a crucial role in extending the range and decreasing the cost per watt. TECs not only provide cost-effective cooling solutions but also enable on-board systems to maintain precise control over operating temperatures.

Phononic’s Jason Ruppert.
Phononic’s Jason Ruppert

This temperature control is crucial, especially in the diverse environments where AVs operate. It is particularly beneficial for lower-power lasers and detection schemes, such as those utilized in FMCW-based sensors that demand strict control over wavelength and temperature for optimal performance and safety.

“This capability not only enhances safety but also ensures compliance with crucial automotive reliability standards like AEC-Q100, 102 and 104, as well as IATF 16949 certification, making Phononic’s cooling technology a cornerstone of advanced LiDAR systems in automotive applications,” Ruppert said.

Unlike traditional cooling methods, which are often used in controlled environments like data centers and fiber optics, TECs are specifically designed to maintain precise temperatures for optical transceivers, ensuring wavelength stability, Ruppert said.

“Phononic’s thermoelectric solutions consume less power to generate necessary heating and cooling; have a flexible form factor that integrates into the LiDAR sensor, optimizing range detection; and devices are designed with reliability and shock typical of automotive use,” Atti added.

The role of Phononic’s thermoelectric tech

Phononic’s thermoelectric cooling devices have been employed in cooling applications for optical, telecom and fiber-optic communications equipment. Now, Phononic is set to take its expertise to the next level by providing the essential cooling solutions for Luminar’s LiDAR systems.

Phononic’s proprietary thermoelectric technology, combined with a scalable device architecture, positions the company to deliver reliable, high-performance cooling that meets the stringent standards of the automotive industry. This technology will not only ensure that LiDAR systems continue to function optimally but will also contribute to the overall safety of vehicles using Luminar’s innovative technology.

“Phononic’s devices provide cooling from microwatts to kilowatts and are widely used in data centers/LiDAR; product integration provides cooling in cold chain/last mile; and the company’s licensing platform includes HVAC and consumer use,” Atti said.

Controlling heat.
Controlling heat (Source: Phononic)

The scalability of Phononic’s technology is notable due to its use of highly automated manufacturing processes and equipment, a departure from traditional methods in the thermoelectric cooling industry.

This approach draws from the semiconductor industry’s best practices, allowing Phononic to efficiently produce its thermoelectric cooling devices. This scalability is a significant advantage, as it enables Phononic to meet the specific needs of automotive OEMs effectively.

Atti said his firm’s supply pact with Luminar marks a pivotal moment in the automotive industry, as it represents the first agreement of its kind in the thermoelectric cooling sector, highlighting the growing importance of this technology.

The pact, he said, signifies that thermoelectric cooling has transitioned from a niche technology to a mainstream solution with broad applications. Just as data, solar and LED technologies revolutionized various aspects of our lives, thermoelectric cooling is poised to have a similarly transformative impact on the automotive industry.

The practical strategy for advancing AVs is to make long-term investments in high-capacity architectures, resulting in overall cost savings. The cost per watt for high-power 1,550-nm lasers is decreasing significantly, and TECs are anticipated to contribute to further cost reductions. This investment trajectory aligns with the orientation of the market, thereby fostering consumers’ widespread adoption of AVs.

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