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A Key Piece of Self-Driving Cars Is About to Get a Lot Cheaper

Velodyne, which leads the world in making lidar sensors for autonomous cars, just announced a brand-new design.

The budding autonomous-car industry is in something of a panic. Laser sensors are crucial to help most self-driving cars see, but there aren’t enough to go around. This is, of course, good news for companies that make those sensors, and now Velodyne, the most established manufacturer of the devices, has announced a much more affordable new sensor.

Most self-driving vehicles use lidar to map physical space by bouncing laser beams off of objects. But as we’ve reported recently, the autonomy boom means that suppliers of the once-niche hardware are struggling to keep up with demand. Even companies that have developed in-house alternatives are having trouble: Uber and Waymo are currently embroiled in a lawsuit over the intellectual property relating to their homegrown hardware.

Typically, a lidar rig is the most distinctive part of a self-driving car: it looks like an oversize coffee can mounted on the car’s roof, whirling around as it spits out laser pulses. And the most commonly spotted sensors are made by Velodyne, whose top-end devices cost tens of thousands of dollars.

But Velodyne has now announced a new kind of solid-state lidar sensor that promises to be smaller and far cheaper than current mechanical versions. Instead of spinning, these devices guide laser beams using electronic beam steering. While that means that a single sensor can only cover a 120-degree field of view, so a car would need three to do the same job as its rotating counterpart, they can still see up to 200 meters away.

And the solid-state design has several advantages. First, the devices are much smaller—measuring five inches long and two inches high and deep—so they could be placed inside fenders or mirrors. Second, they’re more robust. And perhaps most important, the new design is far cheaper. Like, hundreds of dollars cheaper.

That will put it in direct competition with other companies developing similar solid-state lidar sensors. Startup Quanergy has developed one that is slated to start shipping this September for $250 a pop, while the Israeli firm Innoviz has promised a $100 device by 2018. Velodyne, meanwhile, plans to deliver sample units to customers by the end of this year and swing into full production by the end of 2018.

Clearly, there’s an end in sight for the laser shortage, especially given that upstarts like Luminar are also trying to break into the market with their own new takes on lidar.

Who will win out among all these companies remains to be seen. In truth, it might not matter for now: the biggest prize will ultimately be in the contracts to provide lidar systems for mass-produced cars. That will depend not just on availability and price, but longevity too—something the autonomous car industry hasn’t really had time to test.

(Read more: IEEE Spectrum, “Self-Driving Cars’ Spinning-Laser Problem,” “Fist-Sized Laser Scanner to Make Autonomous Cars Less Ugly,” “College Dropout Says He’s Cracked Self-Driving Cars’ Most Crucial Component”)

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