Vantablack is extremely cool. You really have to see it to believe it.
The material, developed by Surrey NanoSystems in the UK, is one of the darkest substances known to man, absorbing up to 99.96% of visible light. Beyond the colour, it provides exceptional performance, having a high thermal shock resistance; but you don’t care about that, do you?
Well, you should. In fact, there are many different applications for this material, including the autonomous vehicle sector.
You may have spotted the BMW ‘VBX6’ at the Frankfurt Motor Show a few weeks ago, which drew huge crowds throughout the event. The German automaker teamed up with Surrey Nano Systems and Levitation 29 to create the first vehicle in the world to feature a Vantablack VBx2 coating which, ultimately, stole the show.
In short, a surface coated with Vantablack loses its defining features to the human eye, with objects appearing two-dimensional. This can be interpreted by the brain as staring into a black hole. Thus, coating the BMW X6 with Vantablack hid its curves which, to many automotive comedians, actually improved the aesthetics of the monstrous SUV.
I’ll let you decide.
Although the publicity stunt was exciting and added something unique to the event, I want to focus on some of the future applications of Vantablack, following the developments of Surrey Nano Systems in the automotive industry. What if I told you that this kind of coating has the potential to revolutionise the self-driving car?
From Novelty to Necessity
Ben Jensen, Founder & CTO of Surrey Nano Systems says that it has always been about cost-driven benefits within the automotive industry. Already being involved in the lense industry, his company started to develop materials to address the major shift currently occurring inside the automotive industry.
“We happened to do this at a time when ADAS systems, autonomous vehicle sensor systems and heads up displays were starting to gain traction in the market,” he says. “The technology aligned itself to solving some of the problems that they were having in those sensor and display systems.”
The first time I heard about Vantablack was within space applications, such as telescopes, before starting to see the material popping up all over the internet for aesthetic purposes. The main uses have been around optical sensor systems, such as camera lenses and space optics. Now that the automotive industry has developed into a technology-focused sector, it’s starting to be used in lenses and radar systems that will be implemented in vehicles over the next few years as we approach the age of autonomy.
“The automotive industry has a specific requirement on the types of coatings, the way they perform and the cost model,” says Jensen. “In an auto application, the main areas that the coating gets used in are in lidar systems, where they improve sensitivity and bright light performance. We are delivering some really significant benefits in terms of stray light sensitivity, bright light sensitivity and distance sensing capability on lidar systems.”
Most major OEMs have vehicles out today with forward-looking camera systems, which help the car perform basic safety functions. At the moment, they work quite well but things such as sunlight can cause, what Jensen calls, ‘pixel washout.’
“This removes the ability for the camera system to discriminate what’s in front of it, such as when you go through a tunnel and drive out into the sunlight which creates a huge range in contrast for the camera to adapt to incredibly quickly,” Jensen explains.
The next-generation of auto manufacturing is looking to implement special coatings of Vantablack to deal with pixel washout through incredibly effective at suppressing sunlight from entering the systems. It’s more than just a colour.
Simple – Yet Revolutionary – Design
Another advantage of Vantaback is that the game-changing innovation offers a low-cost solution that automakers can use in existing lidar systems, simplifying the engineering of the lidar unit.
Fundamentally, says Jensen, if you don’t have good light absorption technology for the radar, you must design and build complex systems to take into mass-production.
“Just like what Vantablack does in space, it simplifies the design of the optical path to the camera and the way stray light interacts and bounces inside the lenses or shielding system, so helps reduce cost whilst delivering significant safety benefits,” says Jensen.
To me, and one of the reasons I was so interested in this story, is that not enough people are talking about the right applications of Vantablack in the automotive world. We as an industry need to show the same appreciation as the space industry has shown the material.
“The reason we coat objects such as the BMW isn’t just for marketing reasons,” says Jensen. “You can try and describe something to an optical engineer and they’ll get it, but if they see it in person they will quickly understand just how powerful this is.”
The BMW stunt in Frankfurt, which got huge coverage across the world, has stimulated discussion amongst optical engineers and revealed that Vantablack can be a significant tool in design pallets that can solve future problems in autonomy.
“The transition into electric and autonomous safety systems is happening, whether people are on board or not,” assures Jensen. “In 10 years time, the world will look very different in the automotive sector than it does today.”