From The Editor | January 27, 2023

LiDAR: Helping Tomorrow's Vehicles See Clearly Or Blind To Its Demise?

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By John Oncea, Editor

Lidar GettyImages-959189898

LiDAR is a go-to technology when it comes to driverless cars. But should it be?

lidar \ lahy-dahr\ n 1 a device similar to radar in principle and operation but using infrared laser light instead of radio waves and capable of detecting particles, distant objects, and varying physical conditions in the atmosphere 2 a method of detecting distant objects and determining their position, velocity, or other characteristics by analysis of pulsed laser light reflected from their surfaces → lidar operates on the same principles as radar and sonar

No matter how you define it, LiDAR is one cool technology used for aerial surveying, asset management, GIS services, ground-based surveying, engineering, urban planning, and meteorology. While those are all fascinating uses, let’s focus on its long-term viability related to driverless cars.

It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again

Kirsten Korosec, senior reporter and editor at TechCrunch, attended CES 2023 and noted that, “At every turn, in the newly constructed West Hall at the Las Vegas Convention Center, and even amid the crowded startup grinder at Eureka Park, was a company pitching lidar sensor technology. That might not have been so remarkable in 2017 or 2018. But it’s 2023.”

Kristen notes that as recently as five years ago almost 70 companies with active lidar programs were doing business but, today, “LiDAR company Luminar said it’s able to verify 25 companies with active lidar programs, a figure in line with other estimates in the industry.” Kristin advises against being fooled into thinking the LiDAR market is particularly robust, however. She writes Snow Bull Capital CEO Taylor Ogan expects many LiDAR companies will be sifted out this year and the “make it or break it year” for those that remain will be 2024.

“I think we will see the big OEMs make lidar commitments in 2023,” Kirsten quotes Ogan as saying, adding that a lot of models will be unveiled with lidar. “But 2024 will be the make-or-break year for LiDAR companies, where we will see whose fancy booths at CES were just that, and who is going to deliver.”

Not everyone – looking at you, Elon Musk* – is a believer in LiDAR, however. Lidar News Today writes, “While the whole automotive world – including NASA – uses LiDAR sensors, Elon Musk disputes them and does not use them on Tesla (which only goes ahead with normal cameras). A tough dispute: Musk even defined LiDAR technology as ‘stupid’. Adding that ‘Anyone who relies on Lidar is doomed.’”

Musk dislikes using LiDAR for two reasons*, according to Lidar New Today. “The first is that it is very expensive. The second, on the other hand, is almost philosophical. Musk himself explained that ‘mounting LiDARs on the car means filling it with expensive appendages. But on a car every added accessory is a bad thing: it is ridiculous to fill the car with these devices.’”

A Volt Equity article, Why LiDAR is Doomed, also suggests that LiDAR is … well … doomed. “LiDAR has often been heralded as an essential part of safe autonomous driving, and it is generally an accurate and reliable distance sensor,” writes Volt Equity. “However, Tesla has proven that cameras can be trained to ‘see’ just as well as LiDAR.

“What is ultimately required for autonomous driving is not merely excellent ‘eyes,’ but also an excellent ‘brain.’ Tesla's existing fleet of one million + cars provides it with an insurmountable lead in data gathering – and in turn, the ability to interpret and respond in even the most infrequent, extreme, and dangerous situations.”

Volt Equity’s takeaway doesn’t bode well for LiDAR’s staying power in the automotive industry: “Superior ‘eyes/vision’ (through LiDAR) does not solve autonomous driving; Tesla's superior data gathering through its fleet will help it train a superior ‘brain’ for interpreting what it sees and making safe driving decisions in the 0.00001% of extreme and dangerous situations.”

* In fairness, Musk says doesn’t hate LiDAR – just its use for self-driving cars. Volt Equity quotes Musk as saying in a Tesla Autonomy Day YouTube video (2:34:08-2:34:39, lightly edited) “I should point out that I don’t super hate LiDAR … the SpaceX dragon uses LiDAR to navigate to the space station and dock. … SpaceX developed its LiDAR from scratch to do that and I spearheaded that effort personally. Because in that scenario [a spaceship docking], LiDAR makes sense. But in cars, it’s freakin’ stupid. It’s expensive, unnecessary, and as Andrej [Karpathy] was saying, once you solve vision, [LiDAR] is worthless.”

So, LiDAR Won’t Be A Thing Anymore?

Whoa, hold on. I didn’t say that.

MicroVision attended CES 2023 and reports that 2023 will be a big year for LiDAR. Projecting the purchase and integration of 100 million LiDAR systems this decade at the price of $80 billion. Part of what is driving that is that “next-generation vehicle safety features will need to perform at highway speeds, which will require long-range detection of objects and situations that could pose hazards.”

Emergen Research projects strong growth as well, estimating the LiDAR market size to register a CAGR of 12.5% by 2030. Emergen suggests, “Rising demand for LiDAR in automotive industries is also boosting the market revenue growth. For instance, on 10 May 2022, LeddarTech, a global leader in Advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and AD sensing technology, was pleased to announce the official launch of LeddarSteerTM, which is a digital beam steering solution developed for LiDAR smart sensor designers and Tier 1-2 automotive distributors. As a result, these new product developments among the automotive industries are contributing significantly to the market growth.”

So, LiDAR’s market growth looks to be robust – let’s take a look at one company’s take on its use of it in the automotive market. PI (Physik Instrumente) L.P. ** is a privately held company that designs and manufactures precision motion and automation systems including air bearings, hexapods, and piezo drives at locations in North America, Europe, and Asia.

PI writes that LiDAR “is what will give tomorrow’s vehicles their eyes — eyes capable of identifying paths, obstacles, hazards, and conditions. It is the key technology underlying such formerly fantastical concepts as autonomous vehicles, driver-assisted smart cars, and smart roadways.

“By giving tomorrow’s wheeled computers a 3D view of the world, objects can be more accurately categorized and evaluated in real time. In this way, LiDAR is the enabling technology for the coming paradigm shift in transportation.”

** Full disclosure, PI is a partner of Photonics Online.

So, Who’s Right?

That’s the billion-dollar question, isn’t it? Is LiDAR a technology that will stand the test of time and help usher in driverless cars, or is it superfluous? Despite Musk’s personal opinion, two dozen companies are banking on LiDAR’s future. Whatever the outcome, it will be interesting to keep an eye on how it all plays out.