As tech giants like Baidu and Google refine the technology to make fully autonomous cars feasible, one important barrier still stands between research and mass production: affordability.
On Tuesday, Baidu and Ford announced a $150 million USD joint investment in Velodyne LiDAR, Inc., a Silicon Valley-based company that develops laser-based LiDAR (Light Imaging, Detection, and Ranging) sensors, which are used for mapping, localization, object identification, and collision avoidance. According to Velodyne, the latest round of funding will go towards cost-reduction and scaling the company’s technology.
“This investment will accelerate the cost reduction and scaling of Velodyne’s industry-leading LiDAR sensors, making them widely accessible and enabling mass deployment of fully autonomous vehicles,” stated David Hall, founder and CEO, Velodyne LiDAR, in a press release.
In LiDAR technology, lasers bounce light waves off nearby objects to measure their distance from sensors. It’s faster than radar, which uses radio waves. As a result, LiDAR sensors can collect more data and produce more detailed 3D maps of the sensor’s surroundings. In the context of autonomous cars, LiDAR sensors help cars ‘see’ the road.
Currently, Velodyne’s latest generation of sensor, the Velodyne Puck, costs about $8,000 USD. That’s cheap compared to older generations of Velodyne sensors, which cost more than $80,000 USD. In developing the Velodyne Puck, the company scaled down the number of lasers per sensor from 64 to 16, significantly lowering its cost. Still, the company’s sensors will have to become even cheaper in order to scale to the mass consumer market.
“Baidu is developing autonomous vehicles with the intention to increase passenger safety and reduce traffic congestion and pollution in China,” stated Jing Wang, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Autonomous Driving Unit of Baidu, in a press release.
“Our investment will accelerate our efforts in autonomous driving with what, in our view, are the best LiDAR sensors available today and advance Velodyne’s development of increasingly sophisticated LiDAR sensors,” he stated.
Baidu’s investment in Velodyne marks another milestone in the tech giant’s ambitions for its autonomous driving unit. Two months ago, Jing Wang announced Baidu’s plan to mass produce autonomous cars and have them on the road within the next five years. The Chinese tech giant also launched an autonomous car driving zone in the Anhui province earlier this year and signed an agreement with the Wuzhen Tourism Bureau in July to let tourists book Baidu self-driving cars.
Baidu is also expanding its R&D resources for its autonomous car technology. In April, the company announced the formation of a 100-person R&D team based in the Silicon Valley.
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