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With robotaxis still a distant dream, lidar makes itself useful

By Gabrielle Coppola, Bloomberg News on

Published in Science & Technology News

The promise of self-driving cars and robotaxi fleets once seemed just around the corner, but reality is setting in. Makers of the underlying technology are pivoting to more realistic ways of making money in the here and now.

Among the most expensive components of autonomous vehicles are laser-based sensors that allow a car's computer to "see" its surroundings. As automakers push back timelines for introducing self-driving models, companies that specialize in these laser sensors, known as lidar, are targeting more limited features for passenger cars that will go into production in a few years. That's a shift from the driverless fleets once at the center of manufacturers' strategies.

Companies are betting they can make this business model work by whittling down the cost of laser sensors, which can reach thousands of dollars. That would make it affordable enough for automakers introducing semi-autonomous features such as hands-free highway driving. Lidar is becoming more familiar to consumers, too, and is a feature of higher-end versions of Apple Inc.'s new iPhone 12.

Lidar startups have raised hundreds of millions of dollars, seizing on demand for high-tech auto investments. Luminar Technologies Inc.'s 25-year-old founder is set to become one of the world's youngest billionaires when it completes a reverse merger later this year, and Velodyne Lidar Inc. went public via reverse merger last month.

The game plan is to generate revenue on the long road to full autonomy, said Grayson Brulte, who runs a consulting firm in Palm Beach, Fla., focused on autonomous vehicles."The only way in the current mobility market for autonomy or semi-autonomy to show revenue growth is ADAS," said Brulte, using industry parlance for partial autonomy, or Advanced Driver Assistance Systems. "As higher levels of autonomy mature, then you can start to have that additional revenue growth."

Surge in Sensors

 

The market for lidar sensors in light-duty vehicles could reach $46 billion in sales by 2030, with much of that going to enable partial autonomy, according to Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst with Guidehouse Insights, a research company. A lot of that volume will come from makers of low-cost lidar sensors, including Continental AG and radar supplier Ibeo Automotive Systems GmbH, he said.

Innoviz Technologies Ltd., an Israeli startup backed by two of the world's largest auto suppliers, Aptiv Plc and Magna International Inc., is pitching its latest sensors as a cheaper way for automakers to start phasing in more-sophisticated technology because it allows for upgrades as self-driving systems become more capable and widespread.

Innoviz supplies lidar for BMW AG's iNext car due in 2021, which will gradually introduce so-called Level 3 autonomy, meaning drivers will be able to take their hands off the wheel and eyes off the road in limited circumstances.

"This is really solving a big problem," said Omer Keilaf, the company's chief executive officer.

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