Autonomous driving technology heavily relies on sensors to gather essential data for safe vehicle navigation. However, when these sensors develop scratches that hinder their performance, it raises concerns regarding the safety of self-driving cars. Addressing this predicament, researchers at the Korea Research Institute of Chemical Technology have introduced a groundbreaking self-healing lens material that can effectively mitigate the safety risks associated with damaged sensors.

The research team emphasized the recurring occurrence of traffic accidents caused by recognition and malfunctions of vision systems, such as LiDAR sensors and image sensors in self-driving cars. As a result, confidence in the safety of autonomous vehicles has remained relatively low. In response to this challenge, the team developed a transparent lens material capable of restoring scratches on sensor surfaces, thereby preventing signal distortion and prolonging the product’s lifespan.

Common optical devices like cameras, mobile phones, and glasses employ lenses to capture or distribute light. If a scratch damages the lens surface, it can severely distort the received image or optical signal, as explained by the research team. However, their novel self-healing material optical material can effectively combat this issue by erasing scratches on the sensor surface within a mere 60 seconds when exposed to concentrated sunlight, much like a magnifying glass.

One of the key hurdles in achieving self-healing capabilities lies in the use of hard materials for lenses and protective coatings. Flexible materials are generally more conducive to effective self-healing due to increased molecular mobility inside the polymer. Overcoming this challenge, the research team employed a lens material called thiourethane structure, which, when combined with a transparent photothermal dye, created a “dynamic chemical bond.” This bond allows the polymers to disassemble and recombine under sunlight irradiation, selectively absorbing near-infrared light (850-1050 nm) without interfering with the visible light region (350-850 nm) crucial for image sensors and the near-infrared region (1550 nm) used by LiDAR sensors.

When exposed to sunlight, the material’s surface temperature rises, triggering the self-healing process through the dissociation and recombination of chemical bonds within the polythiourethane structure. The team claims that this technology exhibits exceptional self-healing properties, even with repeated scratching and healing at the same location, guaranteeing reliability even after more than five cycles.

The researchers envision widespread applications for this technology, with its primary use expected in autonomous vehicle sensors, as well as glasses and cameras. By implementing this revolutionary self-healing lens material, the safety and longevity of autonomous driving technology can be significantly enhanced, bolstering confidence in the reliability of self-driving cars and advancing the adoption of this transformative technology.

By Impact Lab