Four Challenges for LiDAR on the Road to Autonomous Vehicles

Stigmas around fatal autonomous vehicle crashes aren't the biggest challenge for the nascent automotive LiDAR industry. Industry representatives weigh in on the future of light detecting and ranging technology for driverless cars.

LiDAR startup Ouster co-founder and chief executive, Angus Pacala, conducts a driving demonstration with the company's light-detecting sensor system. That system is capable of filtering out ambient light, such as sunshine, from its 905 nanometer wavelength system. Ouster offers two LiDAR systems for autonomous vehicles priced at $3,500 and $12,000.

Light detecting and ranging (LiDAR) has bigger challenges ahead than autonomous vehicle crashes. LiDAR wasn't even the culprit behind a fatal autonomous vehicle accident with Uber in March that killed an Arizona woman walking her bicycle across a darkened roadway. Yet LiDAR makers still face extra pressure to make flawless systems for self-driving cars.

Consumer trust in self-driving cars falls when rare but widely reported incidents involve automated vehicles. In 2017, the American Automobile Association (AAA) released the results of a poll that found that 78% of Americans are afraid to ride in a self-driving vehicle. That number moves up and down, depending on how many incidents are in the news.

Low public trust is a discouraging backdrop for a young industry working to make systems integral to automated vehicles. Several forms of LiDAR, which has a wavelength of light about 100,000 times smaller than radio wavelengths, have venture capital backing. For example, the industry leader—San Jose, CA-based Velodyne LiDAR Inc.—has financial backing from Ford Motor Co. and a role in every autonomous car project except Google’s Waymo. Luminar Technologies of Palo Alto, CA recently received an undisclosed investment from Volvo. And Israeli company Innoviz recently entered into an agreement with BMW to supply LiDAR systems for its production vehicles.

A November 2016 report by Grand View Research forecast the global automotive LiDAR market to be worth $223.2 million USD by 2024. But with so much growth and an increasing number of players on the stage, there are still four hurdles the LiDAR industry must clear:

1. LiDAR Is Expensive

Mike Ramsey, automotive analyst for Gartner Inc., isn’t convinced of the business case for automated vehicles. By extension, that includes LiDAR. “We are not talking about a technology that is fully commercialized yet,” he said. “So, I think getting to a low-cost, high-volume LiDAR is going to be more challenging than what people figure.”

When it comes to the cost of LiDAR systems, startups are quick to compare the five-figure cost to the declining cost of other technology as it spreads to more vehicles.

“Every technology gets commoditized at some point. It will happen with LiDAR,” said Angus Pacala, co-founder and CEO of LiDAR startup Ouster. “Automotive radars used to be $15,000. Now, they are $50. And it did take 15 years. We’re five years into a 15-year lifecycle for LiDAR. So, cost isn’t going to be a problem.”

Jim Curry, vice president for product at Blackmore Sensors and Analytics, said the telecommunications industry—in shrinking the cost of 1550 nanometer sources—is enabling the use of cheaper materials in production. “I think there is a perception gap between the long-term cost of these systems and the reality. People think 1550 can never get cheap and that’s wrong.” Blackmore says its frequency modulated, 1550 nanometer wavelength LiDAR eliminates random light sources and can capture data 400 meters away. The company is among several startups trying to convert its LiDAR to complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology—the same used in the transistors embedded into most of today's computer microchips.

2. LiDAR Doesn't Have Enough Range and Perception

Whether 905- or 1550-nanometer wavelength systems prevail, range is a big issue for LiDAR. How close, how far, how wide, and how accurately can LiDAR systems build the 3D picture from point clouds consisting of millions of pixels?

“Range isn’t always range,” said John Eggert, director of automotive sales and marketing at Velodyne. “[It’s] dynamic range. What do you see and when can you see it? We see a lot of ‘specs’ around 200 meters. What do you see at 200 meters if you have a very reflective surface?

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