LIDAR does with light what radar does with high frequency radio waves. Both allow machines to detect the environment around them in a way that human eyes and ears cannot. LIDAR and radar will play important roles in the technology that makes it possible for vehicles to drive themselves safely.

Strobe LIDAR unit

Until now, the biggest problem with LIDAR was that the hardware to make it work was expensive. But a startup company called Strobe says it has invented a new “LIDAR on a chip” that slashes the cost of the equipment by 99 percent! That, friends, is a game changer if there ever was one.

Cruise Automation, itself a startup that focuses on autonomous driving technology, was purchased by General Motors for $1 billion in 2016. Now Cruise Automation has purchased Strobe, making it part of the growing General Motors autonomous car program.

“When used together, cameras, LIDARs, and RADARs can complement each other to create a robust and fault-tolerant sensing suite that operates in a wide range of environmental and lighting conditions,” says Kyle Vogt, CEO of Cruise. He claims low cost LIDAR will make it possible for self driving cars to operate effectively as part of an autonomous ride hailing service outside of major cities.

LIDAR is a bone of contention between GM and Tesla. Elon Musk has stated on many occasions that he has little interest in adding LIDAR to the vehicles his company builds because the sensors have difficulty “seeing” through things like rain, snow, haze, and smog. Radar does a better job in those situations, he contends.

But Elon is “full of crap,” says Scott Miller, director of autonomous vehicle integration at General Motors. “The level of technology and knowing what it takes to do the mission, to say you can be a full Level 5 with just cameras and radars is not physically possible,” Miller told journalists in Detroit last week.

LIDAR gets people in the auto industry highly emotional. Waymo, the self driving division of Alphabet, is using the technology on its fleet of self driving Chrysler Pacific Hybrids. It sued former employee Anthony Levandowski, claiming he took proprietary information with him when he left the company in 2015 that he then used to form new self driving startup Otto. Otto, in turn, was purchased by Uber. The heart of the legal battle was the LIDAR technology Waymo says it developed.

Ford and Chinese company Baidu have invested in Velodyne, the company that makes most of the LIDAR hardware in use today. Toyota is working closely with Luminar, a Velodyne competitor.

It makes sense to non-technical types that the more input available the better when it comes to creating autonomous driving systems. LIDAR, when it works properly, is excellent at creating high definition digital maps of the environment around a vehicle and may be superior to radar when it comes to recognizing living things like dogs and people — things that radar has a hard time noticing.

Kyle Vogt may be right that a combination of cameras, radar, LIDAR, and ultrasound sensors will be needed to create self driving systems that are reliable enough to convince people to use them. Certainly reducing the cost of one of the components by 99 percent is a huge step forward.

Now if we could all agree on one acronym for the technology. When it was new, radar used to be spelled RADAR. LIDAR is cumbersome to type but so is the often used alternative LiDAR. Hopefully soon the world will get around to just calling is lidar. If the cost of it has just taken a quantum leap tumble, we are going to be using it in everyday conversation a lot more frequently.

Source: The Verge. Photo credit: Strobe