Google’s Street View cars are now giant, mobile 3D scanners – Ars Technica

Posted: Thursday, September 07, 2017

Google’s got a hot new ride. The company has a new Street View car with updated cameras, and—surprisingly—a set of Lidar (Light, Detection and Ranging) cans! Google doesn’t have anything up officially about this, but Wired has the scoop on the new vehicles.

The new cars are all Hyundai Elantra GTs with a sweet paint job (ok, probably a vinyl wrap) featuring—what else?—Street View imagery of beautiful vistas. The cars mostly end up being blue and brown, which is a lot more subtle than the old Google Maps-themed Street View cars and their big green doors. Still, it’s hard to miss the giant camera on top.

The camera system upgrade—the first in eight years—greatly improves the image quality while simplifying the rig. In the main ball, Google is down from 15 cameras to seven, making the whole package a lot smaller. These 20MP cameras are aimed all around the car, and the pictures they take are stitched together into a spherical image for Google Maps. There’s more to the cars than just the ball though: there are also a pair of “HD” cameras that face directly left and right. These are dedicated to reading street signs, business names, and even posted store hours; those images are funneled to Google’s cloud computers for visual processing.

The end result of the new cameras will be prettier Street View shots, with higher resolution, better colors, and fewer stitching errors. The better images should also result in more data for Google’s various visual feature-detection algorithms.

Lidar output. Each ring is created by a separate spinning laser inside the housing. This image has 64 total laser "channels," while Google should be carrying 32.

Wired’s report focuses almost entirely on the new cameras, but I think the the most interesting additions are the two LIDAR pucks that hang just below the camera ball. These are the ubiquitous Velodyne VLP-16 “Puck” sensors, allowing the to car “see” in 3D in 360 degrees. These $8,000 Lidar sensors are most commonly used in autonomous car prototypes, so to see them on a Street View car is unexpected. Don’t expect the Street View cars to start driving themselves anytime soon—as Google Street View’s Technical Program Manager Steve Silverman says in Wired’s video, the Lidar sensors “are used to position us in the world.”

A Lidar sensor is just a 3D depth sensor. It only “positions you in the world” if you save a map of the world in 3D and compare your current 3D measurements to your saved 3D map. So are Google’s Street View cars are now creating a massive 3D map of everywhere they drive? It sure seems like it.

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