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.
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.
Ford CEO Mark Fields holds Velodyne Puck LIDAR sensor at a press conference at CES in Las Vegas in January. Carmakers and tech firms competing to develop automated vehicles seek a combination of sensors and cameras that provide maximum perception and visibility of surroundings at a cost that's manageable for mass production. Velodyne, a leading maker of laser-based LiDAR, or Light, Detection and Ranging, sensors, says it has designed a new solid-state version of its technology that provides 3D imaging for automated vehicle systems that will cost less than $50 per unit when manufactured at high volume. That's a fraction of the $8,000 cost of its current mechanical spinning LIDAR devices used in prototype robotic cars. The new design "creates a true solid-state LiDAR sensor, while significantly raising the bar as to what can be expected from LiDAR sensors as far as cost, size and reliability," company founder and CEO David Hall said in a statement.
For the past decade, the easiest way to spot a self-driving car was to look for the distinctive spinning bucket mounted to its roof. The classic lidar design pioneered by Velodyne spins 64 lasers through 360 degrees, producing a three-dimensional view of the car's surroundings from the reflected laser beams.