driverless lidar system

Solid-state lidar chips could mean dramatic price drop for autonomous cars

Image credit: Dreamstime

Two competing autonomous vehicle chipmakers have announced they have developed 'lidar-on-a-chip' - a key component that could drive down the cost of driverless cars.

Lidar (originally ‘light and radar’) works by detecting pulses of laser light reflected from surrounding objects back to the instrument in order to calculate the distance to those objects. Using many bursts of light, a lidar system can build up a picture of its surroundings.

Most lidar systems currently available rely on mechanical scanning, which suffers from poor reliability and high cost.

In contrast, MIT spin-off Draper and Aeva, a separate company founded by ex-Apple engineers Soroush Salehian and Mina Rezk, have both announced lidar sensors that have no moving parts.

Draper said its chip uses “all-digital MEMS optical switches for beamsteering” which improves robustness in the sometimes harsh automotive environment. The chip can image objects at distances of up to 50m and emits and collects light through the same network matrix of optical switches.

The firm said its chip was just the beginning and it is already working on improving the range to image hundreds of metres.

“We feel MEMS optical switches provide an elegant simplicity,” said Sabrina Mansur, Draper’s self-driving vehicle program manager.

“If we want to image a target at a specified location, we simply enable the corresponding optical switch, whereas other approaches rely on precise analogue steering, which is challenging given automotive’s thermal and vibration environment.”

Aeva says its chip can already see 300m ahead and will be able to sell it to automakers for less than $500 (£378) each, a significant reduction from current systems. As recently as late 2017, competing firm Velodyne was reportedly selling its flagship 64-laser lidar unit for $75,000 each - although Velodyne has already established itself as one of the lidar market's biggest players, with many high-profile automotive clients using its products in their prototype autonomous vehicles, including Ford, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz. 

Aeva said it has taken investment from Porsche, the majority-voting shareholder of Volkswagen, one of the largest car manufacturers in the world. The amount was not disclosed, following a previous deal in April with the Autonomous Intelligent Driving unit of Audi which plans to use the startup’s lidar sensor on its so-called “e-tron” development fleet vehicles.

“We have not used any exotic components,” Salehian said in an interview. His firm aims to release a smaller, final production version by 2022.

Volkswagen is supposedly looking into using Aeva’s sensor on the I.D. Buzz, an electric reboot of its iconic microbus that is scheduled to launch in 2022 or 2023.

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