Lidar Takes Flight
The advent of advanced driver-assist systems and autonomous vehicles opens the door for several new technologies and the suppliers developing them. One of the key enablers is expected to be lidar (light detection and ranging) sensors, which will be teamed with cameras and radar to allow vehicles to detect and track nearby objects and precisely map their overall surroundings.
The 2018 Audi A8 luxury sedan has the distinction of being the first production vehicle with SAE Level 3 autonomous driving capability, made possible with an industry-first lidar system supplied by Valeo and Quebec City-based LeddarTech. Audi currently offers the technology, which it calls Traffic Jam Pilot, in select markets in Europe as it waits for regulatory and other issues to be sorted out in the U.S. and elsewhere.
With other automakers developing their own systems, the A8 could soon get a lot of company. ABI Research predicts that global sales of Level 3- and Level 4-enabled vehicles will soar to 8 million units per year by 2025. This will require 36 million lidar sensors with a combined market value as high as $7.2 billion, according to an ABI study released in April.
There’s no shortage of companies competing for a piece of the action. Attendees at a recent technology event in Ypsilanti, Mich., estimated there are as many as 75 lidar-related companies developing lidar systems. While the group is predominated by recent tech startups, many already have partnerships and/or landed major investments from top tier-one suppliers and automakers.
“It’s the Wild West out there,” declares Kaice Reilly, a lidar specialist for Zenuity, the one-year-old advanced technology joint venture between Autoliv and Volvo. He and other speakers at the lidar conference advocate for industry standards and regulations to help guide the development of the nascent technology.
“Safety is the key driver,” agrees Aptiv’s Jada Smith, who leads the company’s advanced engineering efforts. She says lidar and other autonomous driving technologies should be required to pass a host of stringent, repeatable tests—and meet performance standards for vibration, shock and wear—to ensure they’re ready for use on public roads.
“It’s an ongoing optimization process,” adds Jim Schwyn, Valeo’s chief technical officer in North America. This includes developing advanced cleaning systems to ensure lidar maintains a clear and consistent view in harsh conditions.
Not surprisingly, there are differing opinions regarding market projections and the role lidar will play in future automated vehicles. Most agree significant cost reductions are needed for the technology to be viable in high-volume vehicles. ABI expects prices to plunge to $200 and $750 per unit by 2020 for low and high-end solutions, respectfully.
Most of the new lidar systems being developed use solid-state technology with tiny mirrors on an integrated circuit. Because there are no moving parts, solid-state designs are less expensive and more reliable than spinning arrays. There are several competing types of solid state systems, each with their own pros and cons in terms of range, field-of-view, resolution, sensitivity, size, cost, scalability and manufacturing issues.
Velodyne pioneered automotive lidar a decade ago in the U.S. military’s DARPA Urban Challenge for autonomous vehicles. While the company continues to refine its spinning “puck” lidar—slashing costs by more than twentyfold over the years—Velodyne also is readying its own solid-state devices and ramping up for growth. Ford and Chinese internet giant Baidu each invested $75 million in Velodyne in 2016, which helped fund the “mega-factory” the company opened last year near its headquarters in San Jose, Calif. The facility has capacity to build 1 million lidar sensors a year, which will support several high-volume contracts that the company expects to announce in coming months.
Israeli-based Innoviz Technologies also is emerging as an early leader, despite being formed only three years ago. The company counts Aptiv and Magna among its investors and recently won a contract with Magna to supply solid-state lidar for future BMW vehicles. Magna integrates Innoviz’s lidar with its own ultrasonic, camera and radar sensor package. Innoviz specializes in MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical system) solid-state lidar, which is geared toward highway applications.
Blackmore Sensors and Analytics, a Montana-based startup, claims its lidar is the first in the industry to use a frequency-modulated continuous wave technology in place of short laser pulses. Purported benefits include improved sensitivity that allows sensors to better detect bright and dark objects, and adjust for the Doppler effect. To help fund development and commercialize the technology, Blackmore raised $18 million earlier this year through investments led by BMW and Toyota.
Luminar Technologies also has a development agreement with Toyota and Volvo. The company, which was founded in 2012, developed a patented technology that uses receivers made from indium gallium arsenide instead of silicon. Such devices operate on a much shorter wavelength and are more efficient at capturing light. In April Luminar said it had slashed production costs by more than 80% to less than $1,000 per device.
Such advances are coming rapidly throughout the industry. Paul Banks, the chief technical officer of TetraVue, which he founded in 2008, likens early lidar systems to a low-resolution black and white television from 1929. By comparison, he says TetraVue’s latest lidar system is like high-definition TV with 4-D sensor fusion.
But not everyone’s vision of the future includes rose-colored lidar lenses. Tesla says it can accomplish the same performance as lidar in its semi-autonomous AutoPilot system via a combination of advanced radar, cameras, ultrasonic sensors and GPS mapping. Noting that these technologies are becoming more advanced in image recognition and already can read road signs—something lidar can’t do—CEO Elon Musk dismisses lidar as “expensive, ugly and unnecessary.”
Beauty, of course, is highly subjective. Moreover, the latest lidar sensors can be packaged into headlight modules and otherwise be hidden from view, so they no longer look like a junior high school science experiment. Whether or not lidar is the sensible solution for autonomous driving, will come down to performance benefits and costs. This will ultimately shine a light on the winners and losers.
Ram Truck chief exterior designer Joe Dehner talks about how they’ve developed the all-new pickup. “We’ve been building trucks for over 100 years,” he says. “Best I could come up with is that this is our 15th-generation truck.”
Ford has made an accomplishment that will never be bested, never even be tied.
The little car that could still can. And this time as a car that not only gets great fuel economy, but which has ride and handling that makes it more than an econo-box (and its styling is anything but boxy).