WaveSense's ground-penetrating radar helps a vehicle navigate a snowy road.

Autonomous Vehicles Can Reduce the Transportation Sector’s Emissions. WaveSense’s Ground-penetrating Radar Can Help Us Get Them Faster.

Many autonomous vehicles (AVs) navigate by looking at a road’s surface. But what happens when there’s fog, or a coating of snow, or poor lane markings?

In addition to the challenges weather conditions present to AVs, GPS-based navigation has its own problems: it’s unreliable, just like when your maps app gets confused when you’re walking near tall buildings—and reliability is crucial for safety.

So rather than looking at the road or upward, WaveSense looks down. Ten feet down, to be exact. The company uses ground-penetrating radar to map the subsurface of roads, then autonomous vehicles navigate by tracking to that map.

“The shift in perspective that WaveSense has is to understand that the subsurface is very rich in features, very differentiated, and very stable,” explains Tarik Bolat, CEO of WaveSense. “You’re getting reflections off of things like changes in soil type or soil density, roots, rocks, cavities, utility infrastructure. That’s basically generating a unique fingerprint.”

WaveSense’s reliable, safe technology can accelerate how quickly AVs become widespread. Here’s why that matters: self-driving cars have the potential for numerous environmental benefits, including choosing more fuel-efficient routes. Bolat explains that autonomous vehicles will encourage significantly fewer people to buy cars, because they’ll be able to rely on autonomous ride hailing. Fewer cars means fewer emissions from car manufacturing. On top of that, AVs are well suited to being electric, according to Bolat—it’s easy for self-driving cars to go off and recharge on their own.

The company is initially mapping metro areas, nearby parking garages, and highways. WaveSense grew out of MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in 2017, where its technology was developed for the military. The lab deployed its ground-penetrating radar in Afghanistan in 2013.

WaveSense is running pilots with major automakers. The company’s technology can be installed on fully self-driving cars or on passenger vehicles to do things such as autonomous parking. Over the next six months, WaveSense aims to deepen its relationships with these automakers, continue to refine its technology, and grow its team from 10 to 15-20 people.

WaveSense joined Greentown in 2018, and drives cars in and out of the prototyping lab to work on its technology. Bolat says Greentown has introduced WaveSense to relevant partners and that he’s made helpful connections just by bumping into people in the incubator.

There are many factors surrounding AV adoption, but if we buy fewer cars, share more trips, and take advantage of AVs’ energy optimization potential, we could reduce 90 percent of fuel use, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. WaveSense can help us get there.

Greentown Labs is a community of bold, passionate entrepreneurs creating solutions for today’s biggest climate and environmental challenges. Located in Somerville, Mass., Greentown Labs is the largest cleantech incubator in North America, operating a 100,000 sq. ft. campus comprised of prototyping and wet lab space, shared office space, a machine shop, electronics lab, and a curated suite of programs and resources. Greentown Labs is home to more than 100 startups and has supported more than 250 since its inception.