Giant tech companies are fighting over the technology in court. Start-ups around the world are racing to develop new versions of it. And engineers say it is essential to making autonomous cars safe. The obscure object of desire: lidar. "We believe it will be the basis for autonomous driving," said Guillaume Devauchelle, who oversees innovation at Valeo, a major parts supplier to automakers.
Alphabet subsidiary Waymo announced today that it is going to let companies use its powerful sensor technology for purposes other than self-driving vehicles. It will start by selling one of its lidars: a 3D perimeter sensor that can measure distance by sending out pulses of laser light called the Laser Bear Honeycomb. The sensor, which will only be available to select partners of Waymo, is typically used on the bumpers of autonomous vehicles. Waymo's Laser Bear Honeycomb is a tool capable of sensing its environment. It has a vertical field of view (FOV) of 95 degrees -- significantly wider than the standard lidar's 30-degree FOV -- and a 360-degree horizontal view.
BMW just announced it's going with a solid-state LiDAR system for the company's self-driving vehicles, which it plans to put into production by 2021. The technology will be supplied by Israeli startup Innoviz Technologies in partnership with automotive supplier Magna. Innoviz, which only launched in 2016, has raced to market with its solid-state LiDAR sensors and accompanying computer vision technology. Solid-state LiDAR is distinct from the mechanical spinning LiDAR that adorns many autonomous vehicles, including Waymo's cars. The spinning mechanism casts lasers in a circular pattern, giving self-guided systems 360 degrees of coverage.
The race to build mass-market autonomous cars is creating big demand for laser sensors that help vehicles map their surroundings. But cheaper versions of the hardware currently used in experimental self-driving vehicles may not deliver the quality of data required for driving at highway speeds. Most driverless cars make use of lidar sensors, which bounce laser beams off nearby objects to create 3-D maps of their surroundings. Lidar can provide better-quality data than radar and is superior to optical cameras because it is unaffected by variations in ambient light. You've probably seen the best-known example of a lidar sensor, produced by market leader Velodyne.
Each company differs when it comes to their intended path. Google is approaching self-driving technology head on -- their strategy will likely mimic their approach to Android technology: licensing software to other hardware manufacturers. Google uses LiDAR technology, a complicated system of lasers and sensors that, as of this writing, is the most accurate form of autonomous tech. But it's expensive, and would require mass production to be affordable to consumers. Tesla, on the other hand, is taking a different approach by perfecting autopilot tech before branching out to totally autonomous vehicles.