Lights, Camera, Lidar!

Psst, here’s a quick stock tip: Lidar. If the recent spate of activity in the auto industry is any indication, lidar should be a solid investment for the foreseeable future. Over the last year, automakers and suppliers have been making their own investments in the technology as part of their efforts to commercialize self-driving vehicles.

Lidar, which is short for “light-detection and ranging,” uses ultraviolet, visible or near-infrared light to image objects. The technology was invented in the early 1960s and came to prominence a decade later when astronauts used it to help map the surface of the moon. 

For autonomous vehicles, automakers are teaming lidar with radar, high-speed cameras and ultrasonic sensors to detect and track nearby objects. The combination allows for precise and redundant measurement in all weather conditions. 

While lidar is the most sophisticated of the sensors, it also is the most expensive. By far. Systems used in prototype autonomous cars such as the ones being tested by Google have cost as much as $80,000. But several next-generation systems under development promise to reduce costs to well under $1,000 and possibly to less than $100. 

Current lidar systems use individual laser emitters that spin or are swept across a field of vision. The new systems use solid-state designs, featuring tiny mirrors on an integrated circuit without any moving parts.

Quanergy Systems (Sunnyvale, California) says four of its solid-state units can be used to provide 360 degree sensing capability at a total system cost of less than $1,000. The company has manufacturing partnerships with six companies—including part-owner Delphi Automotive—and expects to equip the technology on 100,000 vehicles globally by 2019.

In August, Quanergy acquired Raytheon’s Otus “people-tracking” software. Named after a genus of owls, Otus uses segmentation techniques such as background extraction, object clustering, “merge and split” algorithms and other advanced features to identify and track people in crowded environments. Quanergy plans to combine the technology with lidar sensors to more precisely map objects and the relative distances between them. 

Ford, Continental, Denso, Valeo and ZF also have made recent lidar investments. Continental acquired Advanced Scientific Concepts’ Hi-Res 3D Flash (HFL) technology for automotive applications last year. “It’s going to be a real game-changer,” says Jeff Klei, who heads the North American operations of Continental Automotive Systems. “The technology will provide detailed information that can be used and shared throughout the vehicle.”  

Valeo plans to launch its solid-state lidar in 2018. It claims the system, which uses LeddarTech’s patented signal processing technology, has the best range-to-power ratio on the market. Valeo has been working with Quebec City-based LeddarTech for about three years.

In August, ZF acquired a 40 percent stake in Ibeo Automotive Systems, a Hamburg, Germany-based supplier of lidar and other autonomous vehicle-related technologies. ZF notes that Ibeo’s lidar and systems integration expertise complements the camera and radar technologies it gained from last year’s acquisition of TRW Automotive.

Earlier this year Denso made an unspecified investment in Trilumina Corp., an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based company that specializes in laser-based technologies. Trilumina’s solid-state lidar uses a unique architecture described as a two-dimensional array of vertical cavity surface emitting lasers that allow for simultaneous high-power output and high-bandwidth modulation.

Ford invested $75-million in Velodyne, which is one of the pioneers in automotive lidar. Chinese internet giant Baidu Inc. also invested $75-million in the 13-year-old company. Velodyne plans to use the funds to boost production and cut costs for the technology. Its fourth-generation system can generate 2.2-million data points per second with a range of 200 meters. The company says it is working on more than two dozen autonomous vehicle projects. 

A team of MIT researchers, meanwhile, are developing an integrated “lidar-on-a-chip” technology that they claim has the potential to reduce production costs to as low as $10 per unit. The chip, which is smaller than a dime, uses thermal phase shifters to heat waveguides through which the laser propagates, changing the speed and phase of the light that passes through them. It sounds like the making of an interesting investment.  


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With more than 25 years of experience, Steve Plumb has covered every aspect of the auto industry as an industry writer, editor and marketing professional. He was the founding editor of AutoTech Daily and rejoined the AutoBeat team in 2015. He previously was the editorial director for a leading public relations company.