What the Future of LiDAR Looks Like

Autonomous cars by 2020 is a good bet—as long as goals across five key criteria are met.

The LiDAR market is approaching a tipping point of mass market adoption that spans from individual to fleet vehicles, factory and farm automation, to UAVs. While there is an explosion in demand for high-performance, low-cost LiDAR to meet a broad spectrum of commercial and individual use applications, there have been no solutions that meet price, performance, weight, size, manufacturability or other market criteria.

Figure 1: Point cloud capture of a car and tree by Cepton’s HR80W LiDAR

Automated Vehicles At Scale by 2020?
In order for automakers to achieve ambitious goals of producing and deploying automated vehicles at scale by 2020, they need to acquire high-performance, low-cost LiDAR solutions for testing and integration today. The requirements include product performance, cost, and manufacturability across five key criteria:

  • Range—200 to 300 meters
  • Resolution—0.1 to 0.2 degrees of spatial resolution
  • Cost—to enable broad LiDAR adoption, automakers will require LiDAR volume unit pricing to hit hundreds of dollars
  • Reliability—LiDAR sensor technology must be automotive grade to match the lifespan of other critical vehicle systems
  • Scalability—Companies must be able to produce reliable LiDAR units in the large quantities required for the automotive market. The design and architecture of LiDAR units must support highly automated manufacturing rather than manual heavy processes.

Why Legacy LiDAR is Limiting
The lack of LiDAR solutions that balance long-range, high-resolution performance with affordability puts 2020 autonomous vehicle production goals at risk. Many LiDAR companies see this gap and consider it an opportunity—creating a race to develop high-performance technologies that can meet market demand today.

Figure 2: Thumbs-up captured by Cepton’s HR80T LiDAR

Advances in LiDAR technology that make these requirements achievable include new micro-motion techniques. Such techniques eliminate mechanical components that are prone to wear and tear and produce a durable, low-maintenance product. Micro-motion enables the production of significantly smaller devices, without compromising range or resolution. Smaller devices are desirable because automakers want to seamlessly integrate LiDAR technology into a vehicle’s existing, and subtle, headlamps and tail-lamps rather than compromise styling to accommodate legacy LiDAR technologies.

Day and night detection and classification of cars and obstacles are possible beyond 200 meters with micro-motion LiDAR units. This enhanced LiDAR sensing capability is a key milestone for autonomous vehicle applications.

Figure 3: Parking Lot Scan by Cepton’s SORA LiDAR

Micro-motion LiDAR and solid state LiDAR will coexist in the near future, each with discrete use cases depending on technology/application market fit. Close range applications in robotics and warehouses/factories may soon be served by solid state LiDAR products. However, technical limitations will continue to eliminate solid state LiDAR from automotive applications, where the criteria require long-range, high-resolution, low power, and low cost. Many key technology components used in illumination or detection of solid state LiDAR cannot be mass produced at acceptable costs, or deliver the performance at the stability or reliability meeting requirements for automotive applications.

Figure 4: 360 Degree Capture by Cepton’s HR80W Sensor Array

The Future
To enable faster, safer transportation, LiDAR will continue to evolve and deliver higher resolutions capable of producing camera-like images with longer range, lower cost, in smaller form factors. The fusion of LiDAR and other environmental sensors, such as camera and radar, will happen at the pixel level to provide accurate 3D multi-spectrum environmental knowledge of the surroundings. These devices will be seamlessly integrated into the next generation of vehicles without sacrificing visual design. Leading suppliers will introduce new components such as integrated units that combine LiDAR with head and tail lights. Consumers won’t be able to visually tell the difference.

As Co-Founder and Vice President of Engineering at Cepton, Dr. McCord leads the development of high-performance, low-cost imaging LiDAR systems. Prior to Cepton, McCord was Director of System Engineering, Advanced Development at KLA-Tencor, where he developed electron beam technologies for etching and imaging silicon chips.

Earlier in his career, McCord served as an Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, where he and his group researched various methods of nanometer-scale silicon processing, and as a Research Staff Member at IBM Research, where he worked on development of X-ray and electron beam chip lithography.

Dr. McCord earned a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Princeton University and a PhD in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University.

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