Sony's HDR camera helps self-driving cars see in the dark

It handles tough lighting situations that throw off regular sensors.

Gleb Garanich / Reuters

As Tesla recently showed, video cameras are as important as radar and LiDAR in self-driving cars for tracking road signs, vehicles, pedestrians and more. However, most can't handle tough lighting situations like very dark conditions, flickering LEDs or a sudden transition into a tunnel on a sunny day. That's where Sony comes in with its latest automotive camera sensor. With high sensitivity, HDR capability and anti-flicker tech, it's one of the first designed specifically to help autonomous vehicles function in less-than-ideal conditions.

Tunnels are particularly tough on entry and exit because of the huge differences in lighting (a RED camera demo from 2011 shows how well HDR functions handle that). As Sony illustrates in the video below, a non-HDR camera sees nothing but white when it encounters light at the end of a bright tunnel. With HDR and flicker removal enabled, however, the new sensor easily adjusts to the abrupt light transition and still spots a flickering LED light.

Features of the 2.45 (effective) megapixel sensor include light sensitivity down to 0.1 lux, helping a vehicle see road signs or pedestrians on a clear, full-moon night -- without its lights. It's also got 120dB HDR sensitivity, wide enough to handle tunnels or urban night driving. It can mitigate flicker using a longer exposure time, a function that works in parallel with HDR, since both situations often occur at the same time.

Sony says the device also meets automotive reliability and safety standards. That'll make its low-light and HDR capability important, because Europe's automotive safety board will "include nighttime pedestrians as targets for automatic braking collision avoidance systems in 2018," Sony says. It plans to start sampling the new sensors next month and shipping them in March of 2018.