The term LiDAR comes originally from the mixture of the words light and radar, although it also responds to acronyms such as light detection and ranging or laser imaging, detection, and ranging, or sometimes replaced by the term 3D laser scanning. Basically, we are talking about a method using terrestrial, aerial and mobile applications to measure distance ranges by hitting the target with laser light and measuring the reflection with a sensor, so that the differences in laser return times and wavelengths can be used to make 3D digital representations of the target.
Most people became aware of LiDAR technology with the appearance of the first autonomous vehicles, characterized by carrying what Chris Urmson, first director of the autonomous vehicle project of Google, described as “a spinning Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket”. At that time, in 2015, the cost of a LiDAR unit was no less than $75,000, which made autonomous vehicles prohibitively expensive for mass use.
The evolution of LiDAR, is similar to other technologies that often surprise the layman: as early as 2018, some observers predicted improved LIDAR performance at lower prices that sounded like the stuff of science fiction, but in early 2020, leading player Velodyne put a LiDAR sensor on the market for $100. A look at the company’s website with its product comparison page shows how much smaller LiDAR units are, constantly improving their performance and reducing their price.
Velodyne’s achievements are also matched by other players — such as Ouster, which has just captured $42 million in investment, or Luminar, which is preparing its IPO — that are also growing rapidly in size and attracting more clients, many of them outside the automotive industry. Under such conditions, it’s not just autonomous vehicles that will benefit: with prices expected to fall to fifty dollars and sizes close to those of a postage stamp LiDAR will be incorporated into all types of objects, from cameras, to drones, to who knows what.
Last year, Elon Musk declared that “LiDAR is a fool’s errand, and anyone relying on LiDAR is doomed”, going against the opinion of the rest of the motor industry, and instead opting for a combination of cameras, ultrasonic sensors, radar and artificial intelligence for his vehicles: he may now have to eat his words. In any case, with or without Musk, one of the main obstacles for the development of the autonomous vehicle, the price, size and performance of these type of sensors, has been removed, meaning carmakers could equip their fleets with it, incorporating multiple sensors with less compromises on design, improving safety in the process.
In Musk’s favor, having already integrated this technology even at an earlier stage, and understanding the many problems it could entail, while the evolution of the self-driving features of his vehicles, without LiDAR sensors, seems to be highly satisfactory. And against him, a technological evolution that, in addition to lower costs, could drastically improve performance.
This is, without a doubt, one of the greatest technological revelations: practically any product will be able to incorporate design and manufacturing economies of scale and thereby reduce prices to the consumer. What is happening with LiDAR, cost reductions of several orders of magnitude and increasingly ubiquitous applications, happens with most technologies, and within increasingly shorter time frames. Definitely, a fundamental factor when considering future scenarios and innovative ideas.