LightTrends Newsletter

Cheaper and Thinner LIDAR Sensors Brighten the Future of Autonomous Transport

July 2021

July 15, 2021

LIDAR Unicorns Brace for Leaner Years Ahead

The lidar wars in autonomous transport are heating up and at the same time lidar unit prices are going down. This combination raises the hopes of accelerating progress in the development of self-driving technology. In the long-term, we expect new competitors to continue to enter the space. LightCounting remains skeptical about predictions for widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles over the next five years, because of the enormous challenges in technology, regulation and society that remain to be overcome. The timeline is fluid with companies such as Ford and Uber pledging to put autonomous cars on the road this year. Yet, autonomous driv-ing continues to generate a huge amount of interest and exuberant, almost irrational, levels of investment. The first phase of the market is behind us, the second phase will follow the slow and steady ramp of the Gartner Hype Cycle producing a number of success stories.

The conversation around safety continues and is still a barrier for Level 4 autonomy on our roadways. Even with pandemic lockdowns in 2020, the World Health Organization reported 1.35 million people died on roadways across the globe —that is more than 3,000 deaths a day. This is the challenge for mobility companies. To build sensor suites which include sensors with a 360-degree, redundant field of view, with driving software to accurately perceive the vehicles surroundings, predict the behavior of other road users, plan a path, and guide the vehicle. The goal of this industry has always been focused on safety. Successful trials of Level 4 autonomous transport are occurring around the world, yet development toward “edge-case” transportation situations continue. It’s the stalled car on the road in front of you, the basketball darting out into the street or another car losing control on a wet highway. Luminar CEO and co-founder, Austin Russell notes that the industry is working towards “the vision of zero collisions and Luminar is building the uncrashable car.”

Sales of LIDAR modules have continued to decline in 2021 since several leading compa-nies canceled or postponed their LIDAR projects last year. Apart from lower volumes, average selling prices for LIDARs dropped sharply in 2020. The target price for automotive lidar units today is reportedly in the $500 - $600 range but will likely continue to drop to sub-$500 in 2021. The stakes are high at this second phase. The companies that have technology to manufacture the lower cost LIDARs will emerge as winners, adding billions of dollars to their market valuations.

 Meanwhile in Germany, the Parliament in Berlin approved a new law on autonomous driving in May. Germany’s nationwide approach contrasts with the patchwork of state laws in the United States and other countries in Europe. The U.S. government has issued guidelines for autonomous driving but attempts to establish mandatory rules that would apply in all 50 states have floundered in Congress amid disagreement among automakers and autonomous driving devel-opers. The German legislation could also give the country’s automakers an edge in the race to design cars that can drive themselves. By deploying autonomous vehicles commercially, they will gather large amounts of data they can use to advance the technology. If the services are profitable, they will also help pay for further development within the country.

What companies are leading the pack? Where will we see the first areas of growth - personal vehicles, robotaxis or trucking?

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