This Is How A New Car Learns To ‘See’

This Is How A New Car Learns To ‘See’

If you’re buying a new luxury car, it has a lot of gizmos to keep you from smashing into things. There are digital eyes that help you see better. Radar to help your car see other cars. Cameras to help identify lane markings. None of them, though, are worth a damn if the car doesn’t know which way they are pointing.

That’s why almost every modern car will pass through a mechanical optometrist to make sure it’s seeing correctly. I recently got to see this process carried out on a new Acura TLX, albeit in slow motion.

I was at Honda’s Performance Manufacturing Center in Marysville, Ohio. Mainly known for building the NSX supercar, the plant is also doing a special run of handbuilt “PMC Edition” Acura TLXs and MDXs. These special cars are like normal TLXs and MDXs, only redder, and assembled by humans.

Acura also takes advantage of PMC’s flexibility to offer package combinations not seen on their mass-produced brethren, but more importantly for this story, PMC Edition TLXs are produced at a much slower rate. While the Marysville Auto Plant churns out about 180 TLXs every day, PMC is happy to build six before callin’ it quits for the evening. Because of that, you can see parts of the production process you’d normally miss at a faster plant.

Bestowing the gift of sight to a midsize Japanese sports sedan, for instance, is usually a 1-minute-and-15-second job. At PMC, it takes seven minutes. That leaves plenty of time for a master technician to explain what’s going on to your author, who tries to look approachably bumbling while still speaking with relative authority about things he just learned.

Anyway, as we’ve learned from Jason Torchinsky’s Cars fanfiction, the headlights are the center of automotive vision. So once you put a TLX in factory calibration mode, the first step is to have it gaze into a mechanised eye that can detect the cutoff point of the low beams. From that, it can tell if the lights are aimed too low or too high.

And unlike anyone who drops brand new LED lights into their EK Civic, the Acura technician takes the time to adjust the screw on the headlights that aims the beam until it’s at an appropriate height as to not:

1.) Blind semi-truck drivers

2.) Blind snails

Once that is done, it’s time to sort out all of the more active vision systems. To do that, a large board with some black-and-white rectangles pops out of the floor, two black-and-white corner pieces are placed near the Acura’s fenders and a small reflector surrounded with absorbent foam is affixed directly in front of the TLX.

You also may notice that the whole station is surrounded by glorified dominos arranged in different ways around the car. These are the car’s reference points.

Essentially, a perfect version of this exact setup is preloaded into the car’s brain. The TLX knows what the black-and-white squares on the pop-up board are supposed to look like, so given the ideal image and the real one, it can self-adjust until the picture is perfectly dialed in.

Ditto the markings on the floor, which are used to calibrate the 360-degree camera. These systems stitch together feeds from one camera at the front, one at the rear and one under each mirror to create a birds-eye view of the car to assist in manoeuvring.

Try as I might, I cannot for the life of me fully comprehend the maths and electronic wizardry required to make a side-out horizontal picture into a top-down vertical one. I do know, however, that the car needs to have a way to tell where one camera’s field of view overlaps with another to create the seamlessly stitched video feed.

Those dominos, with their unique patterns and placement near the edge of the car’s vision, help it to sort out each camera’s relative position and account for tiny manufacturing differences in the final image.

The car, then, largely calibrates its own cameras. The radar, though, is the last part that requires tweaking. To maximise its range and ensure that it isn’t missing return signals, it is vital for the radar emitter to be as level as possible.

In order to adjust this, they use the reflector placed directly in front of the TLX. Because it reflects directly back in the direction in which it receives radar waves and is surrounded by an absorbent foam, the radar should receive its maximum return when it is pointed nearly perfectly level with the reflector.

Using an external meter to measure the signal return and an adjustment screw to tweak the angle of the radar unit, the technician levels out the sensor.

And with that, the process is done. In seven minutes — or much less time at a more automated plant — a car goes from having no bearings on reality to having a perfect 360-degree view of its surroundings.