Are we at an inflection point for the widespread adoption of automotive LiDAR?

The days of bulky, spinning automotive LiDAR systems used in the DARPA Grand Challenge are long gone. With new regulatory tailwinds and sleek compact LiDAR systems entering the market, LiDAR technology looks placed to become the next “must have” automotive safety feature. Cost remains the main barrier to the more widespread adoption in cars, but real progress is now coming in order-of-magnitude technology breakthroughs, not just tiny increments.

Cars need advanced safety features to protect drivers, other road users, and pedestrians. LiDAR has been demonstrated by numerous automakers to perform extremely well in safety tests, giving features like automatic emergency braking an edge. In fact, NIO’s EL6 SUV has achieved a 5-star safety standard equipped with LiDAR and the technology is particularly effective at protecting vulnerable road users. In a recent landmark ruling, the United States Department of Transport has mandated that: “Starting in 2029, vehicle manufacturers must make automatic emergency braking, which reduces vehicle and pedestrian crashes, standard in cars and light trucks. Making this safety feature standard, rather than a luxury, is part of the Department’s National Roadway Safety Strategy to address the crisis of deaths on our roads.” As a result, new cars must have advanced ADAS features to protect drivers and vulnerable road users. The key question is which technology will win out and can LiDAR be mass manufactured at low enough cost to enable widespread adoption of this technology?

Of course, there are price and performance trade-offs to consider between rival LiDAR systems, so car makers must evaluate these. They may also need to consider the impact of greater autonomy on their customers’ insurance bills and their own. Universal agreement is yet to be reached on how the responsibility for accidents is shared between drivers and car makers as vehicles become more autonomous.

No single sensor technology can do it all

Cars require multiple sensory inputs that are fused to deliver the data needed for driving decisions: when to accelerate, brake, or change direction, for example. The sensory information needed to make these decisions is broad. Ultrasound, vision cameras, and radar are all becoming standard features on modern vehicles. LiDAR, which measures and maps the surrounding environment using infrared light, is cutting-edge yet pricey technology but it is beginning to appear in a few vehicles. The challenge for LiDAR makers is to get down the cost curve and make their technology more economically attractive. If they can achieve this, the technology is set to benefit from regulatory trade winds from the United States Department of Transport’s recent ruling.

So where does LiDAR fit in and why?

Despite the current barriers to adoption mentioned earlier, why is LiDAR so interesting for car makers? There are a few key reasons:

1. LiDAR systems generate highly detailed 3D maps of the surrounding environments called point clouds. This precise model of the shape, size, and distance to objects surrounding the vehicle is particularly useful for advanced driving systems.

2. The resolution of LiDAR point clouds enables detection and classification of smaller objects and finer details compared to radar due to LiDAR systems high angular resolution. This is important for making real-time decisions in complex driving scenarios.

3. LiDAR is a type of active imaging and works just as well in the dark as in daylight. Vision cameras don’t work at night, which is when the most vehicle accidents occur due to poor visibility.

What’s the state of LiDAR adoption today?

In 2017, General Motors acquired LiDAR firm Strobe to accelerate the work it was doing with autonomous vehicle maker Cruise. Less than a year later, Audi claimed that its 2018 A8 was the first-LiDAR equipped production car. That vehicle also featured 12 ultrasound sensors, five radars, five cameras, and an infrared camera so that it could see in the dark. By 2022, Bloomberg was reporting that 17 car makers were using, or had plans to incorporate LiDAR technology into their products. Today, Volvo, Polestar, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, General Motors, Lucid Motors, and Chinese brands Nio, Xpeng, Li Auto, and SAIC are all progressing with LiDAR adoption.

Analyst IDTechEx in its report “Lidar 2024-2034: Technologies, Players, Markets & Forecasts” predicts an automotive LiDAR market worth 9.5 billion USD by 2034, and The Fuji Chimera Research Institute predicts around 10X growth in the dollar value of the market between now and 2030. It appears that we are on the cusp of a landslide in the adoption of LiDAR by car makers.

However, recent filings by the main LiDAR makers reveal that current LiDAR systems are still expensive to manufacture. The financial accounts of most of these companies show a negative gross margin. If LiDAR technology is going to scale rapidly to enable the next generation of road safety, then it must be affordable, reliable, operate over the automotive temperature range and lifespan, and use a volume supply chain.

Infrared sensors: a LiDAR market accelerator and life-saving technology

As described earlier, LiDAR works by sending out powerful pulses of infrared light and then detecting the tiny signals reflected from objects the light encounters in its path. Infrared sensors are at the core of all LiDAR systems and their sensitivity is a key determinant of system cost – the fundamental barrier to wider LiDAR adoption.

A significant breakthrough in sensor technology was announced in April 2024, when Phlux introduced its Aura family of Noiseless InGaAs™ avalanche photodiode sensors. These operate at 1,550 nm in the infrared spectrum and promise greater LiDAR range, far better image resolution, and lower system size, weight and, crucially, costs. How these sensors achieve all this is explained in greater detail here. Infrared sensor innovation will accelerate the adoption of and ultimately save lives.

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