How PPG is working on self-driving vehicle technology in Pittsburgh

It can help human-driven cars, too.

Stuart and Olivia_ Allison Park 2017DSC_7575
courtesy of PPG
MJ Slaby

Updated, 1:27 p.m.

When it comes to local self-driving car research, PPG might not be the first company that comes to mind.

But the Pittsburgh-based company is developing paint coatings that are specific to the new technology.

Its research and development team is constantly looking ahead to what’s needed for new technology — whether that’s coatings for batteries in electric vehicles or other types of coatings for autonomous vehicles, Gary Danowski, PPG’s vice president of automotive original equipment manufacturer (OEM) coatings, told The Incline. 

Products related to self-driving cars have been under development at PPG’s research facility in Allison Park for a few years. Danowski said PPG is working with several manufacturers, autonomous vehicle companies and universities on this technology, but declined to share specific names.

He did, however, share more about two types of coatings PPG is working on:

Seeing more clearly

Self-driving cars use a series of sensors and camera systems to “see” the world around them from street signs to buildings to other cars.

Black cars, and darker colors in general, absorb more light than they reflect, making it more difficult for autonomous vehicle sensors to detect them, Danowski said. So PPG is currently developing coatings to make darker colors absorb less light, in turn making them easier for sensors to see.

The coating can be used on self-driving cars, as well as other things that the car interacts with, like human-driven vehicles and buildings, Danowski said. Per PPG’s Automotive Color Trends 2017 report, black is the second most popular car color in North America (21 percent), with grey in third (17 percent). A quarter of cars are white.

The technology goes back to aerospace work that PPG does, he said, explaining that PPG worked with Southwest Airlines on plane paint that absorbed less light and less heat.

“From airplanes to cars to industrial to packaging coatings, basically, we paint everything,” so that means a solution in one area can often be adapted for another, Danowski said.

Weather woes

Especially in Pittsburgh, cars get covered with rain, snow, ice and mud while out on the streets, Danowski said. And for autonomous vehicles, dirt and rain or snow can obstruct sensors.

If you’ve ever hear a puffing sound from a self-driving Uber, that’s the vehicle using puffs of air to clean its cameras and sensors.

PPG is working on another way to keep autonomous vehicles clean — a coating that would make the vehicles easier to wash, so there are no obstructions for sensors, Danowski said. This coating is in the testing phase in Troy, Mich.

A previous version of this article incorrectly listed PPG’s name.