LIDAR vs RADAR in Autonomous Vehicles

Recently the news of autonomous vehicles is hard to avoid. Upwards of 50 million actual physical miles have been driven by autonomous vehicles, not to mention the hundreds of millions of simulated miles. The unfortunate side is that there have been and will be accidents as the kinks get worked out. Between everyone’s favorite search engine and the company bearing the namesake of the most famous person Edison cheated, there seem to be two technologies leading the way.


The utilized tech comes down to LIDAR versus RADAR with the latter being the more well known. RADAR is an acronym for “Radio Detection and Ranging”. Using radio waves, RADAR sends out a detection signal at a specific frequency and waits to receive that signal back. Once detected, the frequency signal change is calculated (Doppler shift included) to determine, in the case of autonomous vehicles, where cars and obstacles are positioned and at what speeds they are traveling. LIDAR, on the other hand, is an acronym for “Light Detection and Ranging”. LIDAR uses multiple infrared light pulses to measure the distance and speed of an object. By sending out these light pulses, a LIDAR system can generate a highly accurate map of the surroundings of a vehicle.

SparkFun's SEN-14032

There has yet to be a “winner” as far as what technology works best for autonomous applications. LIDAR has its limitations in adverse weather conditions (i.e. snow, rain, fog). While RADAR doesn’t seem to be as negatively affected by weather conditions, it cannot relay size and shape of objects as accurately as LIDAR. Additionally, RADAR is not a stand-alone solution. Typically, RADAR is accompanied by a plethora of passive ultra-sonic sensors. However, when it comes to price point LIDAR is still relatively expensive.

For designers wanting to get their hands on something to play with or develop with, Digi-Key now has the SEN-14032 LIDAR Optical Sensor from SparkFun Electronics. It totes an impressive 130-foot sensing distance which far exceeds other optical distance sensors. SparkFun provides a great product demo video on the SEN-14032. Digi-Key has a wide array of RADAR components as well from amplifiers, detectors, mixers and other ICs.


According to Tesla, fully autonomous cars will be released at the end of 2017. Will everyone buy in? No. Will there be accidents? Yes. Are we going to be flying around in self-driving/flying cars like the Jetsons? Probably not (but my fingers are crossed). Once the technology is perfected, however, I believe it will lead to fewer traffic incidents, less loss of life in accidents and some pretty sweet rides.


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About this author

Image of Jeff Zbacnik, Jr., Digi-Key Electronics

Jeff Zbacnik, Jr. is a seasoned electronics technician at Digi-Key Electronics. Having been with Digi-Key since 2003, he specializes in product reviews, critiques and mischievous tinkering (he makes LEDs blink). He earned an Associate of Applied Science degree in Electronics Technology from Northland Community & Technical College in the inaugural year of the Digi-Key Scholarship program. When not playing his Playstation, he is thinking about playing his Playstation.

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