Lasers light the road for the self-driving cars of tomorrow
Highlights from CES 2019: Lidar Sensors for Autonomous Vehicles
The race to develop and deploy an autonomous vehicle is on. Optics and photonics are playing an ever-increasing role in today’s automobiles, from external parking sensors to head-up displays inside the cabin. In the next generation of transportation, fully autonomous driving will require a suite of multiple redundant sensor systems, and lidar will be an essential component.
Lidar (light detection and ranging) is at the center of the self-driving car world because it helps cars navigate by detecting objects around them without human help. Lidar creates high-resolution ‘point cloud’ maps over distances of several hundred meters, to help the vehicle understand its environment with unprecedented accuracy.
At CES, the various lidar technologies were on display in the exhibition hall for the nearly 150,000 attendees to view. The number of companies developing automotive lidar technologies is estimated between 60 and 160 globally. While not all were represented at CES, this competitive landscape is going to be brutal over the longer term. In the meantime, the huge volume of R&D activity and investment means fast and furious innovation as new companies push the boundaries of technology in terms of performance, price, power consumption, form factor, reliability, availability, and manufacturability.
The many flavors of lidar for autonomous vehicles
Lidar for autonomous vehicles comes in a variety of different ‘flavors’ from conventional mechanical scanning to solid-state 3D flash lidar. The variety of these approaches makes us question – with all of the different technologies, will this hold back the development of the supporting ecosystem of standards, software, and components? How will the safety and legislative issues surrounding mass adoption of lidar technology be addressed in the long-term?
Approaches to LIDAR sensing technologies vary by company:
- Mechanical scanners – Argo AI (Ford), Luminar, Innovusion
- MEMS – AEye, Aptiv, Benewake, Bosch, Leddartech, RoboSense, Velodyne
- 3D flash lidar – Continental, TetraVue, Leddartech, Ibeo
- Multi-beam flash lidar – Ouster
- Frequency-modulated continuous-wave (FMCW) lidar – Aeva, Blackmore
- Others – Cepton, Quanergy, Blackmore, Oryx
Several new products were announced at the show. Market leader Velodyne unveiled the VelaDome, a compact embeddable lidar that uses a hemispherical field of view and proprietary Micro Lidar Array technology to provide an ultra-wide 180° x 180° image for near-object avoidance. Able to detect objects as close as 0.1cm, the unit is designed for driver assistance functions, such as monitoring blind spots. San Jose lidar developer Cepton Technologies unveiled a product with 150m range that is only “the size of a typical box of crayons,” AEye, Ouster and RoboSense were also among those revealing new designs in Las Vegas – more on those later.
The push towards smaller, more integrated lidar systems is opening up opportunities for technologies used to miniaturize optics, such as silicon photonics. Giving delegates a glimpse of the next generation of lidar, silicon photonics start-up SiLC Technologies showed an integrated 1550nm lidar sensor on a chip, utilizing frequency-modulated continuous-wave (FMCW) technology operating at a 1550nm wavelength, that will reportedly enable a broad range of consumer, industrial, robotics, and security applications.
With so many different approaches, it is easy to get caught up in who will win the race and what technology will be in our autonomous vehicles – 5, 10 and 20 years from today. “While the high range and resolution of these sensing devices is important, so is the price point of each unit,” said Derek Frome, Ouster. Ouster’s approach allows for scalability at a price point that will bring 3D sensing to the masses, he details. “Our OS-1 LIDAR sensor is reasonably priced, starting at $3,500 per unit, which makes it an attractive unit in terms of price and scalability,” Frome added.
Ouster is not the only company aiming to undercut the price of the established market leaders. At CES, Chinese vendor RoboSense demonstrated an upgraded version of its MEMS solid-state lidar, the RS-IPLS, which is priced at $200 per unit in limited quantities. RoboSense is the leading lidar company in China, with more than 50% market share and investment from the logistics arm of the Alibaba Group, state-owned auto manufacturer SAIC Motor Group, and electric vehicle company BAIC Group. With so many lidar system vendors vying for market share, downwards price pressure will be immense – and the price is a moving target. LightCounting believes that lidar systems will be selling in the low $100s, per unit, a decade from now.
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3D Sensing for Self-Driving Cars Reaches the Peak of Inflated Expectations
LightCounting releases a new report addressing illumination in smartphones and automotive lidarIn 2019, the market for VCSEL (vertical cavity surface-emitting laser) illumination in smartphones will exceed $1.0 billion – now nearly triple the size of the market for communications VCSELs. That’s quite remarkable for a market that didn’t exist three years ago.3D sensing in smartphones felt like an overnight sensation, but the technology foundations were laid down years ago with Microsoft’s Kinect – a motion-sensing peripheral for gamers released in 2010 but discontinued in 2017 after lackluster sales. Lumentum supplied lasers to the Kinect almost a decade before the iPhone opportunity emerged; the company was ready to profit from the iPhone X opportunity when Apple decided to launch 3D sensing for facial recognition in September 2017.
Figure: 3D depth-sensing meets the Gartner Hype Cycle
Source: Gartner with edits by LightCounting
If all technologies follow the Gartner Hype Cycle, shown in the Figure above, then 3D sensing in smartphones is now moving up the slope of enlightenment. Android brands raced to add 3D sensing to their flagship phones in 2018 – the Xiaomi Mi8 Explorer and Oppo Find X phones were first – although these only sold in single digit million quantities. Huawei also brought out new phones with 3D sensing, but the ongoing U.S. export ban on the Chinese company must be hurting the company’s traction outside China. Apple continues to dominate the market as all new iPhones released by Apple since 2017 have included 3D sensing on the front of the phone. Apple is expected to introduce 3D sensing for ‘world-facing’ applications in 2020, which adds another laser chip to every phone.
Last year illumination for lidars were not included in our market forecast since LightCounting considered it unlikely that lidar would penetrate the consumer market to any great extent over the forecast period. All indicators now point to a market for lidar illumination ramping up in 2022 and beyond. Optical components firms are now shipping prototypes and samples of VCSELs, edge emitters and coherent lasers to customers developing next-generation lidar systems – many of them building on their expertise in illumination for optical communications and smartphones.
As was the case with smartphones, the foundations for lidar technology were laid down much earlier – in this case with the DARPA Challenge 2007, where the winning vehicle used a 64-laser lidar system from Velodyne Acoustics (now Velodyne Lidar). Lidar is considered by the majority of the industry to be an essential part of the sensor suite required for autonomous driving, helping the vehicle to navigate through the environment and detect obstacles in its path. The first commercial deployments have begun. In Germany, lidar on the Audi A8 enables the car to drive itself for limited periods under specific conditions. In Phoenix, Arizona, you can hail a ride in a Waymo robotaxi.
Investor enthusiasm for lidar is undeniable with nearly half a billion dollars invested in lidar start-ups in 2019 according to our analysis of publicly available investment data. Notable deals include $60 million for U.S. company Ouster in March, Israel’s Innoviz Technologies Series C round of $132 million in the same month, and $100 million for U.S.-based Luminar Technologies in July. Interestingly, these examples illustrate the variety of lidar approaches: each company is building a different type of lidar based on a different wavelength: 850nm for Ouster, 905nm for Innoviz and 1550nm in the case of Luminar. There’s an open technology battle and they can’t all be winners.
The automotive lidar market seems to be close to the peak of ‘inflated expectations’. It’s easy to understand why. The automotive industry is enormous, with nearly 100 million vehicles (including trucks) produced annually. Players like Baidu, GM Cruise and Waymo are backed by deep corporate pockets, and new entrants like Aurora and Pony.ai are attracting hundreds of millions in investment. Intel’s $15.3 billion purchase of Mobileye in 2017 was also directed at autonomous driving. Sensor company AMS is in a $4.8 billion battle to acquire German semiconductor lighting firm Osram with its eye firmly on lidar.
However, signs indicate that the descent into the trough of disillusionment could have already begun. Waymo has yet to roll out its robotaxi services more widely – and this summer admitted that its vehicles needed more testing in the rain. GM Cruise has delayed launch of commercial services for self-driving cars beyond 2019 and is reluctant to commit to a new timescale, with its CEO Dan Ammann observing that safety is paramount; automotive is not an industry where you can “move fast and break things” he said. A casualty of the slow pace was optical phased array lidar developer Oryx Vision, which closed its doors in August and started to hand money back to investors.
While lidar is being deployed commercially today, prices are not conducive to mass production, and there are open questions around regulation, safety, ethics and consumer acceptance. Do local laws prohibit self-driving cars? Will they really be safer than humans? Who is responsible for a crash? LightCounting remains skeptical about the pace of adoption of autonomous vehicles, but will be watching the market closely and with optimism.
More information on the report is available at: https://www.lightcounting.com/Sensing.cfm.