Jerusalem-based Mobileye has long produced a pretty-good robocar system based solely on an optical camera. Call it the poor man's robocar.
Paris-based Valeo is known for its comparatively affordable lidar—compared, that is, to the US $75,000 Velodyne unit you see rotating, Eye-of-Sauron-style, atop the Google Car. That’ the rich man’s robocar.
Now the two companies are joining forces to produce—what else? The middle-class man’s robocar. Such a really-quite-good approach could easily be upgraded bit by bit, an incremental strategy that many big automakers appear to be following. This collaboration just shows off the strategy in a relatively pure form.
First, the two companies will take various nonlidar-powered sensors and integrate them into active safety systems, which for instance sense the slowing of the car in front and apply the brakes to avoid a collision. But the interesting part incorporates lidar for true self-driving applications.
By fusing data from four or more cheap lidar units with the output of a windshield-mounted camera, the companies hope to combine the sharp definition and precise range-finding power of lidar with the color sensitivity and other pattern-recognition powers of cameras. No doubt other sensors—like the radar that’s the mainstay of the big auto makers—will eventually go into the mix as well.
Mobileye has had a stratospheric market performance, and even now, after sobriety has set in, its market capitalization stands at $9 billion. This valuation is based more on prognostications of growth than on current income—prognostications supported by collaborations with auto companies, including the likes of Tesla Motors.
Mobileye’s founders had one key insight: that a single, or “monocular,” camera on the windshield could support a self-driving system, at least for much of the time. When the system can’t cope, it hands the wheel back to the driver—just like the fancier systems that incorporate radar and other sensors. Lidar defines the upper end of fancy.
Valeo, a French auto supplier, and its partners are developing a lidar unit to be priced at several hundred dollars apiece. Lidar offers much of what radar does but throws in extras, like the ability to discern the edges of things. Four units could cover a car’s immediate surroundings about as well as those roof-mounted monsters, provided that the their data streams can be fused properly. Fusion would be the job of Mobileye’s system-on-a-chip.
Critics will cavil at such half-measures, saying it is not done well. Admirers will note that it is amazing that it is done at all—and for a price that the average buyer can stomach.
Philip E. Ross became a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum in June 2006. His interests include transportation, energy storage, artificial intelligence, natural-language processing, and the economic aspects of technology. He has reported on solar towers in Spain, cloud seeding in Nevada, telescopes atop a mountain in the Canaries, and robotic cars in California and Germany. He blogs mainly for Cars That Think, which won a 2015 Neal Award. Earlier in his career he worked for Red Herring, Forbes, Scientific American, and The New York Times. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.