Could Autonomous Technology Spell the End of Colorful Cars?

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Today’s cars come in every possible color. You can get them in bright oranges and reds, mild-mannered blues, or good old black, which once was the only choice. Enjoy all that color while you can because autonomous cars have trouble with some colors. The best color choice is white, so it could be a boring automotive future.

The challenge is that lidar systems see highly-reflective colors like white better than other colors, so white is a safer choice. If you knew painting your car a certain color would make it safer, wouldn’t you forgo that lime green and go with the safer option?

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According to Detroit Free Press, lidar has a hard time seeing dark colors and less-reflective paints. This isn’t a big deal while we still have human drivers at the wheel, but as autonomous technology takes over it will become a pressing problem.

Even road signs could be trouble. Our driving world is designed for us to see with our human eyes, not a lidar system in an autonomous car. Our eyes adjust, but lidar always has a tough time seeing dark colors that absorb light. If you’re imagining bright white cars with ridiculously reflective paints, that’s not the solution either. Lidar can be blinded by the reflection the same way sun glinting off a car can blind our eyes.

Somewhere in the middle is where automotive paints need to be as autonomous technology replaces humans. Colors need to be bright enough for lidar to easily see while not overwhelming sensors so they see nothing at all.

Studies are already underway to solve this problem. It’s a complex process that involves testing various colors and recipes for paint in the wide range of conditions in which we drive our cars. It has to work in bright sun, rain, snow, on a cloudy day, and at night under the glare of headlights. The diversity of conditions makes testing a slower process.

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If you don’t like white cars, it’s not time to panic, yet. Although white is proving the easiest color to work with, it’s not likely going to be the only color. The industry is working to figure out what characteristics automotive paints need to have in order to be easily detectable and once they do, they can hopefully apply that to a variety of paint colors.

No one wants a world full of white cars. We will still be able to pick out colorful cars, but perhaps not just the same hues that decorate our roads today.