Behind the scenes in the automotive industry two separate but parallel philosophies are at work when it comes to self-driving cars.
One philosophy hopes to completely eliminate drivers from the equation, along with steering wheels brakes and other “in-the-car” controls. The other merely wants to assist drivers and eventually replace up to 90% of the decisions drivers have to make.
The truly autonomous system utilizes LiDAR, an expensive and sophisticated type of radar that tracks a vehicle’s location and trajectory along with the location and trajectory of any objects or other vehicles nearby.
The 90% Solution
The other, typified by Tesla Motors Inc. (NASDAQ:TSLAC) utilizes forward looking monocular cameras and other types of radar technology to relieve drivers of as much as 90% of decision making and operation.
The Tesla solution costs much less than LiDAR and because it doesn’t worry about the very difficult to solve final 10% of driving, is likely to be achieved long before systems that include LiDAR can evolve completely safe autonomous vehicles.
Enter Velodyne LiDAR
Now, however, Silicon Valley startup, Velodyne has attracted $150 million in funding from the likes of both Detroit’s Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:FC) and Chinese search engine giant Baidu Inc. (NASDAQ:BIDUD).
The purpose of the investment is to enable Velodyne to develop a LiDAR system that more accurate, more compact and importantly much more affordable that what has been available so far. Inexpensive LiDAR could be a game changer according to experts.
To Die Or Not To Die
The recent fatality in a Tesla operating under the company’s camera and radar-based Autopilot system has cast a shadow over Tesla. If the main objection to LiDAR (cost) can be eliminated, many automotive experts believe even Tesla would adopt that technology.
In fact, eventually both technologies are probably necessary since each has both strengths and weaknesses. What could change, assume cost is much less a factor, is the degree to which any individual technology is emphasized.
Other Technologies And Players
LiDAR and Autopilot type systems are only part of the picture. Simple radar is also used and is reasonably inexpensive. Companies working on radar technology for automobiles include Delphi Automotive PLC (NYSE:DLPHC), Kyocera Corp. (NYSE:KYOD) and Visteon Corp. (NYSE:VCC).
Another technology utilizes ultrasonic sensors which actively emit high-frequency sound. They have poor range but are excellent for near range mapping. Companies working on ultrasonic sensors include foreign firms like Bosch, Valeo and Murata along with Indiana-based SensorTec.