Lasers light the road for the self-driving cars of tomorrow

Highlights from CES 2019: Lidar Sensors for Autonomous Vehicles


The race to develop and deploy an autonomous vehicle is on. Optics and photonics are playing an ever-increasing role in today’s automobiles, from external parking sensors to head-up displays inside the cabin. In the next generation of transportation, fully autonomous driving will require a suite of multiple redundant sensor systems, and lidar will be an essential component.

Lidar (light detection and ranging) is at the center of the self-driving car world because it helps cars navigate by detecting objects around them without human help. Lidar creates high-resolution ‘point cloud’ maps over distances of several hundred meters, to help the vehicle understand its environment with unprecedented accuracy.

At CES, the various lidar technologies were on display in the exhibition hall for the nearly 150,000 attendees to view. The number of companies developing automotive lidar technologies is estimated between 60 and 160 globally. While not all were represented at CES, this competitive landscape is going to be brutal over the longer term. In the meantime, the huge volume of R&D activity and investment means fast and furious innovation as new companies push the boundaries of technology in terms of performance, price, power consumption, form factor, reliability, availability, and manufacturability.

The many flavors of lidar for autonomous vehicles
Lidar for autonomous vehicles comes in a variety of different ‘flavors’ from conventional mechanical scanning to solid-state 3D flash lidar. The variety of these approaches makes us question – with all of the different technologies, will this hold back the development of the supporting ecosystem of standards, software, and components? How will the safety and legislative issues surrounding mass adoption of lidar technology be addressed in the long-term?

Approaches to LIDAR sensing technologies vary by company:

  • Mechanical scanners – Argo AI (Ford), Luminar, Innovusion
  • MEMS – AEye, Aptiv, Benewake, Bosch, Leddartech, RoboSense, Velodyne
  • 3D flash lidar – Continental, TetraVue, Leddartech, Ibeo
  • Multi-beam flash lidar – Ouster
  • Frequency-modulated continuous-wave (FMCW) lidar – Aeva, Blackmore
  • Others – Cepton, Quanergy, Blackmore, Oryx


Several new products were announced at the show. Market leader Velodyne unveiled the VelaDome, a compact embeddable lidar that uses a hemispherical field of view and proprietary Micro Lidar Array technology to provide an ultra-wide 180° x 180° image for near-object avoidance. Able to detect objects as close as 0.1cm, the unit is designed for driver assistance functions, such as monitoring blind spots. San Jose lidar developer Cepton Technologies unveiled a product with 150m range that is only “the size of a typical box of crayons.” AEye, Ouster and RoboSense were also among those revealing new designs in Las Vegas – more on those later.
Source: Velodyne

The push towards smaller, more integrated lidar systems is opening up opportunities for technologies used to miniaturize optics, such as silicon photonics. Giving delegates a glimpse of the next generation of lidar, silicon photonics start-up SiLC Technologies showed an integrated 1550nm lidar sensor on a chip, utilizing frequency-modulated continuous-wave (FMCW) technology operating at a 1550nm wavelength, that will reportedly enable a broad range of consumer, industrial, robotics, and security applications.

With so many different approaches, it is easy to get caught up in who will win the race and what technology will be in our autonomous vehicles – 5, 10 and 20 years from today. “While the high range and resolution of these sensing devices is important, so is the price point of each unit,” said Derek Frome, Ouster. Ouster’s approach allows for scalability at a price point that will bring 3D sensing to the masses, he details. “Our OS-1 LIDAR sensor is reasonably priced, starting at $3,500 per unit, which makes it an attractive unit in terms of price and scalability,” Frome added.

Ouster is not the only company aiming to undercut the price of the established market leaders. At CES, Chinese vendor RoboSense demonstrated an upgraded version of its MEMS solid-state lidar, the RS-IPLS, which is priced at $200 per unit in limited quantities. RoboSense is the leading lidar company in China, with more than 50% market share and investment from the logistics arm of the Alibaba Group, state-owned auto manufacturer SAIC Motor Group, and electric vehicle company BAIC Group. With so many lidar system vendors vying for market share, downwards price pressure will be immense – and the price is a moving target. LightCounting believes that lidar systems will be selling in the low $100s, per unit, a decade from now.

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  • Photonics West, San Francisco
  • Mobile World Congress, Barcelona
  • OFC, San Diego