Düsseldorf Everything revolves around an actually inconspicuous, rectangular, black box. But beneath the surface is a laser technology that has been worked on for decades and that will soon become indispensable for the entire automotive industry. We are talking about lidar sensors.
They are the indispensable key to the gigantic market for automated driving. Every partially or predominantly self-driving car will depend on laser radars. They work in a similar way to radars that are already widely used, such as in air traffic, only that they emit laser beams instead of radio waves. Their reflections result in a three-dimensional light image that is reminiscent of works of art by the French impressionist Claude Monet: Fine brushstrokes create an almost realistic image of the surroundings. The resolution of lidar sensors is higher than that of radars; at night they work better than cameras.
The sensors have been tested on prototypes by car manufacturers or robot taxi services for years. For a long time, the high price stood in the way of commercialization. But it is now falling rapidly. The reason is the so-called solid-state technology. US provider Velodyne expects this way to bring the price of a lidar sensor down to an average of 600 dollars by 2024. By comparison, the average price in 2017 was just under $ 18,000.
In contrast to the conventional mechanical large lidar sensors, which are mounted on the roof of test vehicles and are reminiscent of lighthouses with their rotating mirrors, solid-state lidars do not have moving parts. The sensors are less efficient. However, they are smaller, more robust and cheaper – three basic requirements for use in the car.
Top jobs of the day
Find the best jobs now and
be notified by email.
Numerous lidar start-ups are vying for this market. With Blickfeld and Ibeo, two German companies have been around for a long time. The world’s largest Auto supplier Bosch tries to catch up and has been developing a long-range lidar on its own for a year with great ambition. “Series development is running, all internal milestones have been reached,” says a company spokeswoman.
The company does not reveal an exact point in time when series production will start. It is not clear whether it will continue to go it alone. “We are open to any partners,” the group now announces. Auto parts suppliers like Continental or ZF have already placed their bets and hold minority stakes in lidar start-ups from the USA.
A wave of IPOs recently kicked off in the USA, catapulting young lidar companies to new financial heights. Last week, AEye – in which Continental has a stake – went public, initially the last lidar start-up, via a so-called Spac. A start-up is merged with a company shell listed on the stock exchange. The back door share listing brought nearly half a billion dollars into AEye’s coffers. The start-up is valued at two billion dollars.
The Lidar Spac series began with the IPO of Velodyne in July 2020. The US company was able to raise more than 190 million dollars in fresh capital practically overnight. After Velodyne things went very quickly. In December, Ouster and Innoviz went public. In January 2021, Aeva, in which ZF and Porsche are involved, and Luminar, which cooperates with Daimler’s truck division, were added.
Luminar’s IPO turned founder Austin Russel into one of the youngest billionaires in the world from one day to the next at the age of just 25. The listed lidar start-ups come together to a market valuation beyond the ten billion dollar mark.
Apple heats the market additionally. According to the Bloomberg news agency, which cites informed circles, the iPhone manufacturer is currently in talks with suppliers who are developing lidar sensors for its planned car.
Moon mission makes lidar known
The theoretical basic concept for lidar technology is already over 90 years old. It goes back to the Irish physicist Edward Hutchinson Synge. The US physicist Theodore Maiman developed the first working laser in 1960, and one year later it was Malcolm Stitch who developed the first lidar sensor for the US aerospace and defense company Hughes Aircraft. At that time, the laser radar was still called “Colidar” (Coherent Light Detecting And Ranging) and was used for military purposes. In the early 1970s, the lidar sensor became more popular thanks to the Apollo 15 mission, which was used to map the surface of the moon with the help of lidar sensors.
After that, it became quiet around lidar for a long time. After the moon mission, it took another 30 years for the lidar to attract attention again. At the first Darpa Challenge – a race between autonomous vehicles in the Mojave Desert between California and Nevada organized by the US military’s research agency – in 2004, Velodyne founder David Hall sent a pickup truck with a bucket-shaped, rotating roof lidar into the race – and won.
It was immediately clear to all participants in the challenge that lidar sensors are an essential part of autonomous vehicles. This knowledge has not changed to this day. Just TeslaCEO Elon Musk continues to insist that robot cars will be able to drive autonomously even without lidar sensors in the future.
The French supplier has the first lidar sensors in series vehicles Valeo installed in cooperation with Ibeo. In 2018, Audi’s luxury vehicles A6 and A7 were equipped with so-called solid-state lidar sensors. Most of the Valeo lidar sensors are built in Wemding, Bavaria. According to Valeo, the plant is currently the only one in the world that builds lidar sensors ready for series production.
Lidar sensors are also used more and more outside of the automotive industry. Deutsche Bahn recently started a joint project with Ibeo. Deutsche Bahn equips trains with lidar sensors, which enable so-called “landmark-based localization”. In this way, Deutsche Bahn will be able to have trains run even closer together in the future and thus increase the frequency. This is essential, especially against the background of stricter climate protection targets and the expected higher number of passengers.
Consolidation is coming
The numerous IPOs, the large amount of money that is currently in circulation and the approaching commercialization of the technology cannot hide the fact that the lidar market is heading straight for a consolidation. Because it is always the same well-known names that get fresh investor money or announce collaborations with car manufacturers or suppliers.
For Kyle Vogt, chief technology officer at GM’s robot car subsidiary Cruise, it is only a matter of time before the first lidar start-ups leave the market. “In the past 24 months, we have seen a consolidation in robotaxis to a handful of companies. The next consolidation is now imminent in the lidar market, ”wrote the Cruise CTO last on Twitter.
Frank Petznick, head of the driver assistance department at Continental, has a similar view. “Together with AEye we have developed real prototypes and some of the first lidar sensors have already been installed in test vehicles. We see, however, that there are also companies on the market that mainly operate at the Power Point level, ”Petznick told Handelsblatt.
This means: start-ups that are only now entering the market and vying for investor money and have no partnership with a car manufacturer or supplier will no longer be able to catch up with the technological and financial deficit.
The development of lidar is therefore currently dominated by the automotive industry. According to Conti manager Petznick, this ensures that start-ups in particular that cooperate with automotive suppliers or car manufacturers are more successful. “Such a partnership has great advantages in the development of lidar technology, since Continental has direct contact with the car manufacturers,” says Petznick.
The rapid development in the lidar market is also showing the first signs of overheating. An indication of this are the sometimes full-bodied promises of young and unknown lidar companies that either guarantee an extremely long range of their lidar sensors or even promise that their lasers can see “around the corner”. In this way they try to attract investors.
According to Daniel Göhring, professor of computer science at the Free University of Berlin and specializing in the perception of robots, the young lidar companies first have to pass the practical test. “The main question is what the solid-state lidars can really do better than classic radars in practice – and today in Level 2 vehicles with only simple assistance systems”, says Göhring.
The industry should actually be warned. Because the lidar market had already experienced a phase of hype, above all Daimler should still be well remembered. In 2014, the automaker announced the partnership with Quanergy.
Daimler was attracted by the announcement by the American lidar start-up that it wanted to bring solid-state-based lidar sensors ready for mass production to the market at a price of 250 dollars in the near future. Quanergy’s market value then shot to just under $ 1.5 billion. Quanergy could not keep the promise. And to this day Daimler has not installed any Quanergy sensors in its cars.
Assistance: Martin Buchenau
More: Self-driving cars on German roads: traditional car manufacturers could overtake Tesla.