Every day we get closer to an autonomous car society, where it becomes the norm to have a driverless car, leaving you free to do another task during your daily commute. But, one thing that companies seem to be struggling with is the lidar sensor. This vital piece of equipment is what maps objects in 3D by using lasers to bounce off real-world surroundings. These sensors can see minuscule details within a few centimeters, right up to distances of over 100 meters. Companies including Uber, Toyota, and Alphabet all rely on lidar technology to identify objects, locate themselves on a map, and be able to navigate around.
Most companies that are playing in the autonomous race consider lidar sensors to be an essential part of the plan. Tesla, on the other hand, uses radar sensors instead. However, radar sensors don’t pick up as much detail, and the cameras perform pretty poorly in low light or glaring conditions. But lidar too is not without their faults. One obvious issue is that these sensors are very bulky. They’re also quite expensive too, with some individual sensors costing tens of thousands of dollars. Even though the numbers are still quite low in terms of those vehicles on the road that needs lidar sensors, the manufacturers are still struggling to keep up, with some facing delays of up to six months.
Some of these problems were seen quite clearly in the lawsuit that Uber faced last month, brought about by Waymo. Being a niche market means there’s a lack of knowledge and expertise in the area. However, Waymo has developed three different sensors already and are planning to license their products to automakers to try and address the lidar lag. Other companies also investing heavily in addressing the lidar lag are Ford and Baidu. They’ve invested $150 million collectively in the world’s leading lidar supplier, Velodyne.
Last December, Velodyne made a breakthrough in being able to make lidars available for as little as $50 but has kept quiet in regards to when it will release a solid-state device. One company that has promised to make solid-state lidar sensors available for $250 is startup Quanergy, but their performance levels remain unclear. While auto part suppliers Continental and Valeo are also working in something similar, their technology won’t be available for at least another two years. Big auto manufacturers like Ford and BMW are aiming to have fleets of autonomous cars on the roads by 2021, and it’s going to be partly down to the development and advancement of these sensors whether or not they reach those targets.
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