LIDAR—Expensive but Necessary for a Driverless Car, Part 2

The oos Base presents The Car of the Future weekly feature:

Check out Part 1 in this exclusive Car of the Future blog series LIDAR—Expensive but Necessary for a Driverless Car.

Last year, the first recorded traffic fatality occurred with a Tesla. Using auto pilot, the driver trusted his car which was his mistake but the car’s mistake is that it could not see the large semi’s white trailer against the blue sky which was turning in front of the Tesla car.

The Act of “Seeing” is Difficult

Over 50 companies currently are tackling the challenge of not only building car sensors that can see but bringing the overall price down so that driverless cars are affordable. Here are some of the companies that are forging ahead.

The pioneer and current leader, Velodyne makes the highest-end automotive LIDAR systems with the cost of $75,000 per unit. Velodyne’s LIDAR research enabled Google/Alphabet’s driverless car division Waymo to begin testing driverless cars in 2009. The San Jose based company recently built a new factory to dive deeper into cutting production costs and to meet heavy demand.

If you have ever seen a photo of a driverless car, the dome looking cylindrical unit on top of the car encases the mechanical device packed with sophisticated electronics. Velodyne’s LIDAR device has 64 laser channels, and spins for a 360-degree look at the world. Velodyne also has a much smaller unit that costs $8,000 that holds only 16 lasers. With less lasers, obviously there is less performance on range and refresh rates.

Here is a look at how other startups are tackling the various challenges of LIDAR:

Luminar uses a single mirror to steer the powerful laser in order to see 250 meters.

Aeva is building a mechanical system that uses both LIDAR and radar in order to push range and resolution even further.

AEye announced in mid-December that they are building a solid state device that programs a laser beam in focused areas instead of a regular grid. It can be flexible depending on the driving conditions.

Innoviz uses stationary lasers that reflect off a mirror while oscillating at high speeds.

Newcomer, Ouster has built a hybrid system that spins like Velodyne but has fewer overall parts.

Frost & Sullivan market analyst Arunprasad Nandakumar recently forecasted sales of six million LIDAR units in 2025, half of which will be complex LIDARS for driverless cars, a $2 billion market. He says his reason for optimism is that LIDAR systems are undergoing the same smaller, faster, cheaper revolution that put the power of a 1990’s supercomputer into a smartphone.

Over the past four years, Venture capitalists have invested $678.4 million into the 50 or so LIDAR startups. According to CB Insights, half of that went to 18 startups in 2017 alone.

Every company seems to be working on LIDAR.  The traditional auto suppliers Continental and Bosch are doing their own thing. So are Waymo and Uber which are not together of course since Waymo is suing Uber in court over the stealing of LIDAR trade secrets.

Convergences continue between companies. Ford has invested $150 million into Velodyne and General Motors bought the startup Strobe. Toyota is working with Luminar.

The only driverless player that is not using LIDAR is Tesla which uses company software that allows cameras, radars and ultrasound to work together.

Tech companies are also making their mark.

In March, the microchip manufacturer Intel purchased Mobileye for $15 billion. Mobileye develops sensors and intelligence technology for driverless cars. Other recent Intel purchases include Nervana, a deep learning company, a microchip company called Movidius and the automotive tech company Delphi (which is now splintered off into a new company called Aptiv). Even though Intel has never been in the car business, it has now partnered with BMW and Volkswagen.

Rival Nvidia has been developing the Drive PX computing platforms for self-driving cars. The company is not directly working on sensors but is working on the platform that allows sensors to work together with the car itself. CEO Jensen Huang recently claimed that level 5 driverless taxis will begin operations in 2020 but limited to cities that have been extensively mapped in high definition.

In part 3 of the Car of the Future blog series on Lidar, I will explore the deeper challenges to LIDAR.

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