With Robotaxis Still a Distant Dream, Lidar Makes Itself Useful

The promise of self-driving cars and robotaxi fleets once seemed just around the corner, but reality is setting in. Makers of the underlying technology are pivoting to more realistic ways of making money in the here and now.

Among the most expensive components of autonomous vehicles are laser-based sensors that allow a car’s computer to “see” its surroundings. As automakers push back timelines for introducing self-driving models, companies that specialize in these laser sensors, known as lidar, are targeting more limited features for passenger cars that will go into production in a few years. That’s a shift from the driverless fleets once at the center of manufacturers’ strategies.

Companies are betting they can make this business model work by whittling down the cost of laser sensors, which can reach thousands of dollars. That would make it affordable enough for automakers introducing semi-autonomous features such as hands-free highway driving. Lidar is becoming more familiar to consumers, too, and is a feature of higher-end versions of Apple Inc.’s new iPhone 12.

Lidar startups have raised hundreds of millions of dollars, seizing on demand for high-tech auto investments. Luminar Technologies Inc.’s 25-year-old founder is set to become one of the world’s youngest billionaires when it completes a reverse merger later this year, and Velodyne Lidar Inc. went public via reverse merger last month.

The game plan is to generate revenue on the long road to full autonomy, said Grayson Brulte, who runs a consulting firm in Palm Beach, Fla., focused on autonomous vehicles.

“The only way in the current mobility market for autonomy or semi-autonomy to show revenue growth is ADAS,” said Brulte, using industry parlance for partial autonomy, or Advanced Driver Assistance Systems. “As higher levels of autonomy mature, then you can start to have that additional revenue growth.”

Surge in Sensors

The market for lidar sensors in light-duty vehicles could reach $46 billion in sales by 2030, with much of that going to enable partial autonomy, according to Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst with Guidehouse Insights, a research company. A lot of that volume will come from makers of low-cost lidar sensors, including Continental AG and radar supplier Ibeo Automotive Systems GmbH, he said.

Innoviz Technologies Ltd., an Israeli startup backed by two of the world’s largest auto suppliers, Aptiv Plc and Magna International Inc., is pitching its latest sensors as a cheaper way for automakers to start phasing in more sophisticated technology because it allows for upgrades as self-driving systems become more capable and widespread.

Innoviz supplies lidar for BMW AG’s iNext car due in 2021, which will gradually introduce so-called Level 3 autonomy, meaning drivers will be able to take their hands off the wheel and eyes off the road in limited circumstances.

“This is really solving a big problem,” said Omer Keilaf, the company’s chief executive officer.

Gathering Data

Tesla, whose CEO Elon Musk famously dismisses lidar, has been gathering self-driving data for years by installing its camera-and-radar-based driver-assistance system on its cars. Last week, Tesla began rolling out a beta version of what it calls “Full Self-Driving” to some of its biggest fans and influencers to try out. Musk plans to charge $10,000 a pop for the package, which Tesla claims is advanced enough to use when driving on busy city streets — not just on highways.

Tesla didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment.

Despite its name — and Musk’s promises — the system does not offer full self-driving. Federal regulators are probing deadly crashes involving Autopilot, and critics have slammed the company for rolling it out prematurely.

Keilaf says Innoviz’s approach would be safer than Tesla’s, because lidar — which works well in low-light conditions — would serve as a backup for cameras and radar.

His company’s latest iteration will cost $500 per unit when produced at high volumes, Keilaf said. That is closer to the $40 to $50 per-unit cost for radar sensors and $10 to $15 for cameras, several of which are typically installed on each vehicle, Abuelsamid said.

Holy Grail Delayed

Luminar, which agreed to go public in a $3.4 billion reverse merger earlier this year, is supplying lidar for Volvo Car AB’s self-driving system that will be installed on cars starting in 2022. Dubbed Highway Pilot, it won’t require drivers to keep their eyes on the road at all times.

“It will likely take hundreds of thousands of vehicles to enable autonomy,” Luminar CEO Austin Russell wrote in a letter to investors earlier this month. “That scale is exactly what we can deliver with series production on consumer vehicles.”

Adding lidar will be lucrative for automakers because they can charge thousands of dollars more for the option of advanced autonomous features, Russell said in an interview.

The industry’s focus on mass production of passenger cars is a shift from a few years ago, when companies including Innoviz and Velodyne had trained their sights on AV test fleets. Since then, GM has delayed the rollout of its robotaxi service, while Ford Motor Co.’s former CEO said last year that the industry had overestimated the arrival of self-driving cars.

“If you talk to anybody about three to four years ago, everyone was working on this holy grail of autonomy,” Velodyne CEO Anand Gopalan said in an interview.

Pandemic Threat

Now driver-assist systems represent about 35% of the projects Velodyne has won or hopes to win in the next five years, while AVs and industrial robots make up about a 20% slice each.

High-tech suppliers may be wise to hedge their automotive bets. With fallout from pandemic-related shutdowns and the looming threat of a resurgence, global vehicle sales will be down 14% this year compared with pre-COVID-19 estimates and 22% lower than expected in 2021, according to LMC Automotive.

Velodyne’s Gopalan acknowledged the drop in sales could dampen automakers’ enthusiasm for pricey parts but said lidar remains critical for development of fully automated cars.

“With uncertainties in the marketplace, you may see certain delays,” he said. “But we don’t see a loss of appetite for the tech and the goal.”

As featured in Bloomberg on October 26, 2020

Yes, you’re Seeing more Robot Cars in San Francisco. Here’s Why Self-Driving is Picking up Speed

This was meant to be the year that robot cars went mainstream.

The self-driving car industry, largely based in Silicon Valley, brimmed with confident predictions that autonomous taxis would be commonplace by 2020, ushering in a golden age that would improve transportation, end traffic deaths and reduce congestion and carbon emissions.

Chalk up another way that 2020 dashed hopes.

“Machine learning did not advance as rapidly as (proponents) thought it would,” said Jesse Halfon, a Michigan automotive attorney. “It seems like industry-wide there is a consensus that (mass deployment) will take longer than thought.”

There are some scattered robot taxi pilot programs. In Arizona, Waymo has been giving paid rides in autonomous vehicles with backup drivers to a select group of civilians since December 2018. This year, it’s been removing safety drivers from some cars and will offer a truly driverless experience to the broad public by year end. In Las Vegas, Lyft has given over 100,000 paid autonomous rides with backup drivers. Cruise runs a free ride-hailing service in San Francisco for its own employees.

Still, in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the epicenter for research and development on driverless cars, residents cannot hail a robot taxi.

Soon that could change thanks to proposed new state regulations that lay out ground rules for paid rides in autonomous cars — with and without backup drivers. The 130-page proposal from the California Public Utilities Commission still needs to go through months of comments from the public and the companies.

Even though collecting a few dollars a ride pales in comparison to the billions that self-driving companies have spent, they are adamant that this is a crucial step.

“One thing we’re really about is exploring the commercial option and being able to charge people money to learn what that is like,” said Nathanial Fairfield, distinguished software engineeer at Mountain View’s Waymo, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet. Fairfield was an original member of the Google self-driving project. “The progress on that from the (state utilities commission) has heartened us about the path of commercialization in California.”

Two years ago, Waymo was the first company to get a permit to test robot cars without a driver on California roads. But it has never done so. The roadblock was lacking state guidelines for running a ride service, it said.

“We’ve had our focus on other markets where there wasn’t that impediment,” said Michelle Peacock, Waymo head of global public policy.

Waymo won’t say when it will will do no-driver tests here, but meanwhile it’s ramping up city testing in San Francisco, in addition to Mountain View; opening a new facility in the Bayview; and embarking on a hiring spree.

Residents should expect to see many more of its cars out and about, including its next-generation electric Jaguar I-Paces as well as its existing Chrysler Pacifica minivans. By year end, it will have over a hundred cars on the road here; by next year it said they will number in the hundreds.

“We will test throughout the city in every nook and cranny,” Fairfield said. “It’s a natural place to get our fleet really exposed to a dense urban environment.”

General Motors subsidiary Cruise, the other company that’s furthest along in self-driving, has long touted the benefits of testing amid its hometown’s gnarly traffic. This month, it received permission to operate its white Chevy Bolts without humans aboard. It plans to do so by year end — the first company to operate truly driverless cars in San Francisco.

“This is our moonshot,” Cruise CEO Dan Ammann wrote in a blog post. “And the chaotic, gritty streets of S.F. are our launchpad.”

Ammann had previously said that Cruise would be running a robot taxi service by 2019 and then by 2020 — predictions that obviously did not come true. It too welcomed the new regulatory road map for commercialization.

Jeffrey Tumlin, director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said he sees a lot of potential in autonomous vehicles to reduce traffic accidents, lessen carbon emissions and supplement public transit in places like lightly populated, hilly neighborhoods.

At the same time, he fears they also have the potential to mimic the traffic congestion, diminished wheelchair access and safety issues that he saw occur with Uber and Lyft.

To prevent that, he’s eager to work with self-driving companies, although San Francisco has no regulatory authority over the state-overseen transportation businesses.

With hundreds of autonomous vehicles being tested in the city, he’d like companies to share more about problems that arise. “We would feel a lot better if we were actually able to receive detailed safety data to determine if autonomous vehicles are truly safer than human driven vehicles, particularly for people outside the vehicle.”

He also wants to look at issues of equity and access. “We want to make sure we’re partnering with the private sector to uphold the public good rather than just create more exquisite convenience for the privileged and grow wealth for the investors in autonomous vehicle technology,” Tumlin said.

Some experts think robot cars are more likely to be like theme-park rides than workaday transportation options.

Grayson Brulte, who hosts a podcast called “Road to Autonomy,” thinks even a few years from now they will mainly operate in limited driving domains such as amusement parks and sports venues, as well as being an experience with cachet.

“Individuals who aspire to eat at three-star Michelin restaurants might aspire to ride in these vehicles,” said he said. “It could be a craze like an ‘it’ handbag.”

Besides Cruise and Waymo, three other companies — Zoox, AutoX and Nuro — have California’s OK to test cars without backup drivers. Foster City’s Zoox, which Amazon bought this year for a reported $1.2 billion, sent a generic comment, but sources close to the company said it has not conducted tests without drivers. San Jose’s AutoX did not respond to requests for comment.

Mountain View’s Nuro is the only company that says it has tested on California roads without drivers. For the last few months, it has operated its low-speed delivery vehicle on city streets fully autonomously with no drivers, occupants, or chase cars in Mountain View, as well as Houston and Phoenix, it said. The vehicle, called R2, is half the width of a conventional car, has no manual controls, and just storage compartments rather than room for people.

Lyft, which has centered California testing around Palo Alto, is now expanding it to San Francisco. It just resumed its robo-taxi rides in Las Vegas last week after pausing for several months during the pandemic.

The biggest lesson there, said John Maddox, Lyft senior director of autonomous safety and compliance, is how quickly passengers acclimate and just start looking at their phones.

“I’m the safety guy,” he said. “Boring is good.”

As featured in The San Francisco Chronicle on October 25, 2020

The Media’s Perspective on Mobility with Alan Ohnsman, Forbes

On Episode 15 of the SAE Tomorrow Today podcast, Brulte & Company Co-Founder and SAE Tomorrow Today Host Grayson Brulte sat down with Alan Ohnsman, Senior Editor, Future of Mobility, Forbes to discuss the future of transportation.

This wide-ranging conversation covers everything from electric vehicles and autonomous trucking to the re-emergence of passenger trains and how we’ll traverse Los Angeles over the next decade, plus a look at some of the major players emerging in mobility.

Alan kicks off the conversation at the beginning of his career in Japan, where his appreciation for trains, efficient mass transit and smart cities was born.

Grayson and Alan quickly jump into a conversation about all things Tesla: what were Alan’s initial impressions of the company back in 2006 and how has that perception changed, what would happen if Elon Musk stopped tweeting, and what happens to Tesla, A.E. (After Elon)?

The electric talk continues with Rivian and the massive capital being generated for EV startups in the space. Alan shares his perspective on the advantages that these startups have over OEMs for developing electric/hybrid battery technologies and when we might see a true electric SUV from a traditional OEM.

Grayson and Alan take a look at the role that the 3 A’s (Alphabet, Amazon and Apple) are playing in driving autonomy by combining services with mobility, and how that may be the deciding factor for success against more manufacturing-focused competitors, like Cruise.

The conversation takes on additional levels as Grayson and Alan explore how TuSimple is driving ahead of the automated commercial trucking pack, what role will Walmart play in mobility, and how does mobility change in Los Angeles over the next 10-20 years?

Before the conversation wraps, Alan circles back to trains. The two discuss how rail and companies like Brightline trains are going to be a really interesting part of the mobility ecosystem by connecting the middle distances to create quicker trips and safer roadways.

The Media’s Perspective on Mobility with Alan Ohnsman, Forbes is also streaming on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

How Autonomy is Shaping Modern Medicine with Dr. Peter Weiss

On Episode 13 of the SAE Tomorrow Today podcast, Brulte & Company Co-Founder and SAE Tomorrow Today Host Grayson Brulte sat down with Dr. Peter Weiss, Co-Founder of the Rodeo Drive Women’s Health Center in Beverly Hills, California to discuss the intersection between autonomous vehicles and medical technology advancements.

With this episode being recording during a global pandemic, Dr. Weiss briefly touches on how pandemics are identified and the measures we can take to stay healthy and safe as we travel.

The conversation shifts to the current COVID-19 pandemic and how the crisis has actually advanced medical and artificial intelligence (AI) a generation ahead with people ready for the next generation of services. Dr. Weiss and Grayson dig deep into medical AI advancements and the role they will play in the burgeoning autonomous vehicle market.

From what happens if you have an emergency medical condition in an SAE Level 5 AV to what type of standardized cleanliness criteria is needed for shared AVs? The conversation closes out with additional insight on how our reliance and comfort with personal technology is advancing medical AI to levels never before possible.

Dr. Weiss shares his perspective on the opportunities Apple has in the healthcare community and the company’s role as a conduit to medical AI. He signs off with insight on how technology is the great equalizer to provide healthcare equality and what the future looks like for Medical AI.

How Autonomy is Shaping Modern Medicine with Dr. Peter Weiss is also streaming on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Putting Autonomous Driving Back on the Road

Founders, executives, and analysts agree that self-driving car companies are in for a bumpy ride.

The self-driving car was a dream deferred even before the Covid-19 outbreak brought the U.S. economy to a standstill. By early 2020, plans to launch robotaxi services had been pushed back or scaled down as excitement over driverless cars gave way to recognition of the long work and heavy expense of bringing the technology to market. Now the pandemic has forced companies to pull their cars from the road, send engineers to work from home, and look carefully at their balance sheets. 

While some companies are taking the opportunity to demonstrate the promise of autonomous vehicles for contact-free delivery, these efforts serve mostly to show how far the industry remains from large-scale, truly driverless deployments.  

Hyperdrive spoke with a handful of industry consultants and executives about what’s ahead.  There is general consensus that autonomous vehicle developers are in for a bumpy ride, and that consolidation is inevitable. But there is also widespread confidence that the project of building self-driving cars is more urgent than ever. 

“Covid-19 is driving home for so many the promise of fully autonomous vehicles not only to make our roads safer, but also to help riders stay healthy during uncertain times,” said Dmitri Dolgov, chief technology officer of Waymo, formerly known as Google’s self-driving car project, via email. 

Below are the key takeaways from those conversations. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Roundtable participants:

Grayson Brulte, co-founder, Brulte & Co., a consulting firm focused on autonomous vehicles and the future of transportation. 

Oliver Cameron, co-founder and CEO, Voyage Auto. The company contracts with retirement communities to provide self-driving ride-hailing services. Its  main client is The Villages, a community of more than 115,000 in Central Florida.

Ryan Chin, co-founder and CEO, Optimus Ride. The Boston-based startup, founded in 2015, builds self-driving shuttles for private residential and commercial developments. Its clients include the Brooklyn Navy Yard, an office park in Reston, Va., and a retirement community in Paradise Valley, Calif.

Brian Collie, managing director and senior partner at Boston Consulting Group, where he leads the automotive and mobility practice.

Dmitri Dolgov, chief technology officer, Waymo. Waymo is widely acknowledged as the leading self-driving car developer. It recently raised $2.25 billion, including money from its first outside investors, to continue its work on self-driving taxis, delivery vehicles, and long-haul trucks. 

Ro Gupta, co-founder and CEO, Carmera, a New York based maker of high-definition maps, based on data gathered from vehicle-mounted cameras. Almost all of the company’s partners —including delivery  companies and other fleets—have continued to operate during the pandemic, in some cases racking up more miles than before. 

Anuja Sonalker, founder and CEO, STEER. The Maryland-based startup founded in 2016, sells kits that enable cars to navigate parking lots without a driver. The company works with 33 sites in Maryland, including malls, grocery stores, and pharmacies, to provide a robot valet. It has also begun selling $1,200 kits for use in garages and driveways.

Chris Urmson, co-founder and CEO, Aurora Innovation. Aurora, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup founded in 2017, is working to build a “driver” that can operate ride-hailing fleets, personal cars, delivery vehicles, or long-haul trucks. Urmson, part of the engineering team that won the DARPA Urban Challenge in 2007, founded Aurora after leaving Google’s self-driving car project, where he was lead engineer.

Simulation keeps the work going:

Most autonomous vehicle developers use simulation engines to create driving scenarios and test their software. These virtual tools have allowed engineering teams to continue to work productively, without fleets on the road. Aurora, Optimus Ride, and Voyage have all paused their on-road testing. Waymo continues to operate a small number of fully driverless ride-hailing minivans in suburban Phoenix, as well as its delivery and trucking operations, but has paused all rides with safety drivers. 

Dmitri Dolgov (via email): “We’re seeing the increased importance and benefits of our multiyear investment in large-scale simulation, productivity tools, and advanced frameworks for training and evaluating machine learning models, and we’re doubling down our efforts in these areas.”

Ryan Chin:  “You can do a lot of work on simulation. You can go back and work on things that you wanted to work on but didn’t have time for, and you can still make lots of advancements. … It’s not like we’re gonna run out of things to do in a week.”

Oliver Cameron: “Our cars are not running in the world. They are not collecting production miles. And that just puts more emphasis on simulation to be able to find what’s broken and fix it. But we can’t fool ourselves into thinking that simulation can take the place of real world miles. … There’s always going to be that step where you get [the software system] onto a real car and you run it through things you’ve never seen before because the world is dynamic.”

Chris Urmson: “We have a simulation tool that allows us to emulate the sensors we have on the vehicle to generate new data in interesting environments that might be hard to create in the real world. So we can do an awful lot of work with that. Is it useful for us to get real world data? Absolutely. That’s why we have a fleet. But part of the way we have operated from the very beginning has been, instead of trying to operate a massive fleet and hope to get the data you want, to be really thoughtful and targeted with the data collections.”

On consolidation:

There is broad consensus that the AV industry was already entering a period of consolidation. The huge opportunity brought out dozens of venture-backed companies over the past decade, but with time, it’s become apparent that it will take many years and billions of dollars to create a viable business. That realization has narrowed the field; the current economic shutdown is likely to accelerate this.

Ro Gupta: “Even before Covid-19, this industry was already doing a reset in terms of being more realistic with the timelines.”

Brian Collie:   “2022 was a commonly accepted number for commercialization. We’re now looking at being pushed out to 2025, 2026. So we were already seeing significant cash pressure for some of these small or more midsize players to weather from here until then. And the situation with Covid-19 will only exacerbate that.” 

Chin: “Anyone that’s trying to raise [money] right now, it’s going to be tougher for them.”

Cameron: “Consolidation, regardless of virus, was coming and has been for quite some time. Post-virus, yes, there will be an accelerated number of companies that die, whether in AV or not. Let’s be honest: It’s going to impact everything.”

Anuja Sonalker: “Those who don’t have enough runway or did not prove their value proposition before this came, they will have a hard time. It will take every single ounce of their strength to survive this.”

Urmson:  “We have been saying since very early on that we saw consolidation coming. … We’re positioned with enough runway to get through the other side of this and be a beacon for some of these great people whose companies didn’t happen to work out.”

A shock to the auto industry:

Most in the group believe more established automakers could reconsider investments in autonomous driving during the current crisis; that could potentially slow down progress on those projects.

Collie: “When you’re looking at, globally, automotive sales being down in order of 20 to 40% … when you have dozens of plants and tens of thousands of employees and near-term production requirements, you might now look at AV as being much more of a luxury that you can no longer afford.” 

Cameron: “Some of the big guys may not weather this. It may seem like they can, but think about the politics within a big company and the politics of where you spend your time when the whole world is falling apart. I imagine there’s a lot of belt-tightening going on.”   

Urmson: “If you are a General Motors or a Ford or a Volkswagen or any of these big companies, you are going through a very difficult process of prioritizing what you spend money on and what is discretionary. That focus is going to be on how do they get people back to work and how do they meet the demand of the public.”

Brulte: “Can these [auto] companies sustain funding for these operations? Or will they get pressure from the labor unions to stop funding this? You’re closing a factory, yet you’re funding your self-driving car project? That’s going open up some really interesting political divides.”

Collie: “If you’re a tech startup or new mobility player that has moved into this space, this is your full business … while others are distracted, this is getting your sole focus. And we think there’s gonna be a tremendous opportunity for the biggest independent new mobility players to widen the gap.”

The fate of the sharing economy:

The coronavirus has made sharing closed spaces with strangers a fearful experience. It’s unclear how long it will take consumers to get over that fear.

Brulte:  “You will see a dramatic shift in society as it relates to shared mobility, and it will go back to private mobility of individuals riding in a vehicle without another person. Covid-19 will accelerate that shift.”

Urmson: “Even when we get the all-clear, which probably takes quite some time, there’s going to be a residual concern about getting close to other people that you don’t know. It will affect the psyche for a while. And at the same time, when you think about how do we actually move people through big cities, the only good way to do that is through shared mobility. In the long term, I think that automated vehicles have an important role to play in that, whether it’s as private taxi-like vehicles or whether it’s part of a public transportation network.”

Collie: |“Even though right now we are caught up in this unprecedented crisis and all of us are talking about how we’re going to think differently about getting on a train, about getting on a bus, about sharing a car, I don’t think it will take long once this is done for those attitudes to start to change back to where they were before.”

Gupta: “For behaviors changing in a lasting way, I just think no one can ever predict those . … One example I think about is 9/11. There were lots of people that swore they would never get on a plane again.”

Collie:  “When people talk about how people are gonna be less inclined to sharing, they’re doing so with the frame of reference of what a pooled vehicle looks like today, where you’re getting into a repurposed privately owned vehicle and you’re squeezing into a back seat with two other people. Vehicles are going to have a very different form from how they look today.”

Chin:  “How do you design vehicles that have that capability to self-sanitize? I think that’s less of a technical problem than Level Four or Five autonomy, but it is something that we’ll have to incorporate.”

As featured in Bloomberg on April 21, 2020