Race Is on to Create Smarter Sensors for Robot Cars

A monitor shows the digital pattern generated by the lidar sensor created by Ouster in San Francisco — Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle

To drive a car, you need to see the world around you. But computers are blind, so autonomous cars must rely on other ways to perceive their surroundings. Lidar sensors, a laser form of radar, have emerged as a powerful way for robot cars to navigate.

Lidar is so crucial to the self-driving industry that dozens of companies have sprung up in the past year to develop the sensors. It stands at the heart of the Waymo vs. Uber lawsuit, with Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet, alleging that ride-hailing company Uber stole its lidar designs, potentially costing it billions.

“Lidar helps cars see very fine-grained information about what the world looks like,” said Raj Rajkumar, a Carnegie Mellon University professor and a leading autonomous-vehicles researcher.

“Lidar can do the job today. Computer vision can’t,” said Brad Templeton, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was an early strategy and engineering consultant on Google’s self-driving project. “Someday, computer vision will be good enough. Someday, lidar will be much cheaper. That someday for lidar is certain and soon. The someday for cameras is unknown.”

For now, the number of self-driving cars in the world is in the hundreds. Lidar sensors were a $230 million market last year, but as autonomous cars go mainstream, automotive lidar sales worldwide should hit $2.5 billion by 2026, according to Twitter: @csaid

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Gurupriyan is a Software Engineer and a technology enthusiast, he’s been working on the field for the last 6 years. Currently focusing on mobile app development and IoT.