Everyone’s an armchair company leadership expert on Twitter these days, and no company has been given as much free leadership advice as Uber. From an investor’s perspective, one of Uber’s biggest problems is that there are no barriers to entry in the ride sharing business. Uber has no real intellectual property that prevents anyone from offering a similar ride sharing service. Of course the direction the whole “ride sharing market” is moving towards the emergence of the autonomous car which opens up a whole new can of worms.
The near-certain future of widespread autonomous driving has companies of all sizes rushing to develop the systems and technology that will put them at the forefront of the industry. At the heart of autonomous driving technology is LiDAR, a vehicle-vision system that uses the principles of radar, with light and lasers as its primary sensor. LiDAR sensors are what allow autonomous cars to see:
The technology is sure to be prominent in any autonomous driving system that is available to the public, and now has a number of companies competing to be the go-to LiDAR supplier for car manufacturers in the U.S. With more top automakers making the push into autonomous vehicles, the future looks bright for LiDAR startups like these (Chronocam is actually computer vision, Deepscale is building software, but the rest are developing LiDAR sensors):
What is LiDAR and How Does It Work?
LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) is a 3D laser scanning technology that was originally developed in the 1960s for submarine detection. A LiDAR system projects laser beam pulses onto a rotating mirror which then map the distance between objects in the surrounding area to produce a detailed 3D image. Using the speed of light as a baseline, the system detects the time of flight of the light pulses to gauge how far away objects are. Most LiDAR systems use light in near-infrared and UV spectrums. Here’s a look at some LiDAR hardware from a startup called Quanergy:
This technology lends itself well to a number of uses but is particularly useful in autonomous driving systems that need to be aware of nearby objects to avoid accidents and make safe driving decisions. LiDAR provides a low-cost, highly effective solution for vehicle vision in autonomous vehicles.
Founded in late 2012, Sunnyvale California startup Quanergy provides LiDAR sensors and software for 3D mapping data. The Company has raised $135.31 million from investors that include Samsung, Delphi (NYSE: DLPH), and Daimler (the world’s biggest manufacturer of commercial vehicles). Delphi can certainly help them with distribution and Daimler can start deploying autonomous commercial vehicles. As stated above, Quanergy’s sensors are much smaller than other sensors currently on the market and feature no moving parts. The Company has captured a lot of attention with their claims that their systems could one day be available for as low as $100, compared to other LiDAR systems which sometimes cost upwards of $10,000. Quanergy will start full-scale manufacturing of their LiDAR system in 2017.
In a past article titled “Who is Velodyne and What is LiDAR?” we discussed this Morgan Hill, California based company that was founded in 2007 and has accepted $150 million to-date in a single round of equity funding from two investors – Baidu and Ford (NYSE:F). Velodyne is regarded as somewhat of a LiDAR pioneer after developing some of the earliest LiDAR sensors for industrial systems. The Company has emerged as one of the leading startups in the LiDAR space and recently announced they are releasing a solid-state LiDAR system intended to complement their existing 360-degree systems. This picture best explains how solid state LiDAR works:
Offering a solid state LiDAR at a lower price point is a good idea since your standard Velodyne LiDAR puck costs around $7999.
Silicon Valley startup Luminar Technologies produces advanced LiDAR sensors and received $36 million through one round of seed funding. Luminar stands out from competitors in the space because they build their LiDAR sensor from scratch. The Company engineers their own lasers, chips, and receivers from scratch, without materials from third-parties. The advantage is that their LiDAR systems will be capable of seeing farther and in more detail than other systems currently in development. According to an article last month in Tech Crunch their CEO and founder, Austin Russell, had this to say about today’s LiDAR sensors:
If you notice, a lot of self-driving vehicles are limited to operating at or below 25 miles per hour. These are things like delivery robots, or robots used in warehouses. We can see objects at 200 meters, while driving 75 miles per hour. That means you have about 7 seconds of time for your car to react. Other LiDARs only give one second of reaction time.
Mr. Russell memorized the periodic table at the age of two, had his first patent by the age of twelve, and dropped out of Stanford with $100,000 a fellowship from Peter Thiel, so don’t dismiss him just because he’s 22.
Founded in 2009, Israeli startup Oryx Vision has taken in $17 million in a single round of funding to develop solid state depth vision solutions for autonomous vehicles. The Company recently announced a new LiDAR sensor that utilizes long wave infrared lasers to track objects that are on the roadway. The new sensor is able to see through fog and direct sunlight, something that other LiDAR systems struggle with. Additionally, the Oryx sensors’ nano-antennas treat signals as a wave rather than a particle, which allows the sensor to accurately calculate the velocity of nearby objects and provide great detail about what it sees:
According to an article published late last year by IEEE Spectrum, Oryx claims that their LiDAR method “has a million times the sensitivity of traditional LiDAR“.
Founded in 2013, Chinese startup Hesai took in nearly $16 million in funding just 2 days ago but they’ve been busy way before that. In 2016, Hesai launched China’s first 32-channel LiDAR for autonomous cars and just last month they launched a 40-channel solid-state hybrid LiDAR for autonomous driving which is available for public evaluation. While not inclusive of all 50 employees that work at Hesai, we found the group photo on their home page quite endearing:
With China aggressively pursuing a “green” future, LiDAR can play a key role in reducing traffic and car pollution through the use of autonomous cars.
Founded in 2007, Quebec startup LeddarTech has taken in $16 million in funding so far to develop a unique patented solid-state LiDAR that claims a 25X improvement in sensitivity over other LiDARs. Weighing in at just under 4 ounces, their Vu8 LiDAR sensor is available today starting at $475 and up with the ability to detect targets at up to 700 feet away. In February of this year, LeddarTech partnered with IDT (NYSE:IDT) to develop “LeddarCore LCA2 integrated circuits” at sub-$100 volume prices targeted at automotive OEMs and Tier-1 suppliers.
Founded in 2008, Vista California startup Tetravue provides 3D optics solutions exclusively to government agencies. The Company took in a single round of $10 million in February of 2017 from investors that included Samsung, Foxconn, and Robert Bosch GmbH (one of the largest private companies worldwide). Tetravue has set their sights on High Definition (HD) LiDAR systems that focus on three innovations – high resolution, low power, and long range. TetraVue’s LiDAR system uses CMOS and CCD pixel technology that are found in any typical megapixel array. Using widely available technology means lower risk, cost, and time-to-market for the company not to mention a 10x higher resolution than other 3D technologies.
Founded in 2016, Israeli startup Innoviz has raised $9 million through a single round of funding to develop autonomous driving technology that includes 3D sensing, sensor fusion and accurate mapping technologies. Innoviz’s flagship LiDAR system, the InnovizOne, is driven by proprietary technologies and is capable of producing highly accurate, real-time 3D images. The system offers a 200-meter detection range, 100-degree x 25-degree field of view, and a depth accuracy within 2 cm.
That LiDAR sensor you see above sells at a price point of $100 and is expected to be available for purchase by the middle of 2018.
Montana startup Blackmore has taken in $3.5 million in funding so far to develop “frequency-modulated continuous wave LiDAR imaging”. Like Oryx, Blackmore’s LiDAR system is also able to measure velocity by capturing Doppler data from moving objects. Unlike other systems with 360-degree fields of view, the Blackmore system is designed to have fewer moving parts and offers a 40 degree field of view, although they have stated that future generations of their LiDAR sensors could improve upon this. Maybe that’s because their solution consists of just one semiconductor chip that mounts inside your vehicle’s front grill. Prototypes are expected around the middle of this year.
If you had to lose one sense, the last one you would probably pick would be your eyes. Since LiDAR technology provides eyesight for autonomous vehicles, the speed at which LiDAR develops and the ability to sell at lower price points will play a huge role in determining how fast society adopts autonomous driving throughout the 2020s. It’s likely that one or more of the companies above will be the leaders in this space. These startups are the LiDAR cream of the crop and have taken in some serious funding to establish themselves as early leaders.
Now, back to Twitter so we can tell Travis Kalinick what a horrible job he’s doing running the $68 billion startup that he co-founded, which also happens to be the most highly valued startup in the world today:
Horrible, horrible job Mr. Kalinick.
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