Chinese telecoms giant Huawei has formed a team to focus on developing low-cost multichannel lidar sensors with the goal of making the technology affordable enough for all smart vehicles.
Wang Jun, head of Huawei’s smart car solution business unit, said the company plans to launch 100-channel and 200-channel lidar products soon, at a cost of US$500 or less.
“Huawei’s prices mean all smart cars can be equipped with lidar,” said Wang, speaking at the China Auto Blue-Book Forum in Wuhan on Tuesday.
Chinese autonomous driving start-ups are looking for cost-efficient ways to achieve large-scale adoption of the technology as China aims to start rolling out its first high-level, fully autonomous vehicles by 2025. The sector has become notorious for its high-burn rate when it comes to research and development expenses, coupled with the cost of government-issued testing licenses for self-driving vehicles.
Lidar, which measures distance using laser beams to generate highly accurate 2D or 3D maps of the world outside the vehicle, have varied in price, ranging from US$100 to as high as US$75,000 for a fully functional rooftop system from industry leader Velodyne, according to Wired magazine.
Other technologies such as radar and cameras are also being tested as cheaper ways to enable self-driving vehicles to navigate through complex real-world traffic environments. Tesla, the prominent tech disrupter in the automobile industry, depends on cameras and radar for its own self driving cars.
In fact, Tesla boss Elon Musk went so far as to call lidar “a fool’s errand”, saying anyone who relied on it was “doomed”.
However, with the technology maturing and more products entering the market, lidar prices have dropped significantly. Livox, a subsidiary of Chinese drone maker DJI, offers its Mid-40 lidar sensor, which can detect objects up to 260 meters away, for US$599.
“Lidar will become cheaper in China due to maturing technology, growth of market demand, and better supply chain management,” said Li Tianzhen, marketing director at Hesai Technology, a Shanghai-based supplier of lidar systems backed by Bosch, LightSpeed and Baidu.
Some smaller lidar systems are not omnidirectional, so they cost less, but then multiple units need to be installed for complete coverage, increasing the overall cost, according to Sunny Lee, chief operating officer of StradVision, a vision processing company for autonomous vehicles.
“We see lidar units becoming smaller and cheaper, which is good for the auto industry and autonomous vehicles. Typically a reduction in size for hardware like this will be followed by an increase in performance over time, which will increase the capability,” Lee said.
More than 30 lidar manufacturers, including Livox and Shenzhen-based Leishen Intelligent System, took part in the CES 2020 show in Las Vegas in January, when most lidar products were being offered at less than US$1,000.
At CES, Velodyne launched the matchbox-sized lidar Velabit, priced at only US$100, according to a research note issued by Western Securities in January.
Huawei’s smart vehicle unit was founded in 2019 to provide communication devices and solutions for smart vehicles. As China accelerates the development of its 5G networks, Huawei has partnered with 18 carmakers, including state-owned FAW Group Corp and SAIC Motor Corp, to work with it to drive 5G-based applications on connected vehicles.
A raft of robotaxi fleets have been deployed since last year in designated areas in Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Hunan for commuters to familiarise themselves with self-driving car technology.