Fully autonomous cars may be a decade away, but the sensors they'll need for collision avoidance -- radar, cameras, ultrasound and lidar -- have become a big business already.
Global sales of anti-crash sensors will total $9.90 billion in 2020 -- up from $3.94 billion this year, predicts IHS Automotive, a research firm based in suburban Detroit.
Radar and cameras will account for the lion's share of that revenue, followed by ultrasound and lidar, according to the IHS forecast.
Lidar, the sensor of choice used on Google's driverless car, will generate relatively small sales by 2020. It uses pulsed laser light to measure distances.
Markets in North America and Europe will account for most sensor sales in the short run, with China likely to start catching up as regulators issue tougher safety rules.
"Initially, Europe was the primary market, especially for adaptive cruise control," said Kay Stepper, chief of Robert Bosch's regional business unit for driver assistance systems and automated driving. "But that is quickly changing. We have a fast-growing market in North America as well."
Within a decade or so, say industry analysts, the array of collision-avoidance sensors will feed data to powerful onboard computers to create self-driving vehicles. Some planners also believe that safe autonomous driving also will require vehicle-to-vehicle communication enabled by wireless devices called transponders.
The safety trend is generating strong sales for key radar suppliers such as Bosch, Delphi Automotive, Denso Corp., TRW Automotive and Continental AG.
Automakers are starting to equip their mass-market models with anti-collision systems, which typically rely on radar and cameras to monitor the road ahead.
Blind-spot detection and lane-departure warning systems -- which also use radar and cameras -- have proved popular. And vehicles equipped with parking assist often sport an array of ultrasonic sensors.
Luxury brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Infiniti, BMW and Audi already equip cars with surround-view cameras and ultrasonic sensors to help motorists park.
The next step is 360-degree road surveillance, which would allow automakers to design vehicles that can change lanes on their own.
In the near future, automakers seem content to depend on radar and cameras for that task, says Jeremy Carlson, a Los Angeles-based analyst for IHS Automotive.