Albert Einstein upon his arrival on a boat in New York City. Albert Einstein upon his arrival on a boat in New York City. Albert Einstein upon his arrival on a boat in New York City. (Photo: Hebrew University of Jerusalem)

How Einstein helped invent driverless cars

Einstein’s theory of relativity is at the heart of self-driving car technology.

Self-driving cars are making headlines every day, but did you know that we might have Albert Einstein to thank for them? It turns out that two of Einstein’s cornerstone theories are the basis for technologies that make driverless vehicles possible.

The beloved genius published his general theory of relativity in 1915, which is now stored at the official Albert Einstein archives at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Widely regarded as one of the greatest scientific achievements of the 20th century, Einstein’s theory has led to a vast number of technologies. Those include GPS, without which driverless cars wouldn’t know where they’re going.

Waze, the Google-owned mobile traffic app developed in Israel, is at the forefront of using GPS technology for automobile navigation. The satellites that power GPS systems use clocks accurate to a few nanoseconds but the effect of gravity on Earth throws off the clocks by 7,000 nanoseconds every 24 hours.

In order to make GPS navigation as accurate as it is, the satellites have to take the relative effect of gravity into account. That means that without Einstein’s theory of relativity, a GPS unit that tells you it’s a half-mile until your next turn would be five miles off after only one day.

But that's not all. In 1917, Einstein published his quantum theory of radiation, which basically described how to build a laser – the word is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Today, lasers are at the heart of the sensor technology that allows driverless cars to actually “see” the road and other vehicles and obstructions around them.

A major component of Google’s self-driving car is a laser range finder rotating rooftop camera called LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). The camera uses 64 high-intensity laser beams to create 3D images of objects around the vehicle and calculates how far an object is based on the time it takes for the laser beams to hit the object and bounce back.

The drawback to LiDAR technology has been that it's both large and very expensive – more expensive, in fact, than the cars that used them. That is, until now. Two Israeli startups are working to develop a smaller, less expensive version of the technology.

Innoviz Technologies has developed a LiDAR system that it says will cost only $100 and is eight cubic inches. Oryx Vision has developed an alternative to LiDAR, which uses a combination of laser and radar technology that the company says can detect objects and how far away they are, but also how fast they may be moving toward the vehicle. Innoviz just unveiled its high-definition solid state LiDAR, while Oryx says it has proved its theory but is still working to develop a working prototype of the system.

Einstein couldn’t possibly have predicted all of the things his theories have led to – optical data storage, laser tattoo removal or the ability to detect light from the beginning of time, not to mention cars that could drive themselves – but his work plays a role in so many aspects of our lives.

Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where Einstein worked from 1933 until his death in 1955, said it best: “Let us never forget the power of one individual to single-handedly change everything we know about our place in the universe.”


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How Einstein helped invent driverless cars
Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is at the heart of self-driving car technology.