Yesterday at CES, Quanergy, an automotive startup based in Sunnyvale, Calif., held a press conference to announce the S3, a solid-state LIDAR system designed primarily to bring versatile, comprehensive, and affordable sensing to autonomous cars. The S3 is small, has no moving parts, and in production volume will be US $250 or less. According to Quanergy, the S3 is better than traditional LIDAR systems in every single way, and will make it easier and cheaper for robots of all kinds to sense what’s going on in the world around them.
LIDAR systems work by firing laser pulses out into the world and then watching to see if the light reflects off of something. By starting a timer when the pulse goes out and then stopping the timer when the sensor sees a reflection, the LIDAR can do some math to figure out how far away the source of the reflection is. And by keeping careful track of where it’s pointing the laser, the LIDAR gets all of the data that it needs to place the point in 3D space.
In order to build up a complete view of the world, a LIDAR needs to send out laser pulses all over the place. The way to do it is to have one laser and one sensor and them move them both around a whole bunch, usually by scanning the whole LIDAR unit up and down or spinning it in a circle or both. You’ve probably seen these things whirling around on the top of autonomous cars. And they work fine, but they’ve got some problems: namely, they’re kind of big, they’re stupendously expensive, and because they have to be moving all the time, they’re not really reliable enough for consumer use.
This is where Quanergy comes in: its solid-state LIDAR has no moving parts. Zero. Not even micromirrors or anything like that. Instead, Quanergy’s LIDAR uses an optical phased array as a transmitter, which can steer pulses of light by shifting the phase of a laser pulse as it’s projected through the array:
Each pulse is sent out in about a microsecond, yielding about a million points of data per second. And because it’s all solid-state electronics, you can steer each pulse completely independently, sending out one pulse in one direction and another pulse in a completely different direction just one microsecond later. Essentially, you can think of Quanergy’s chip as acting like a conventional glass lens, except that it’s a lens that you can reshape into any shape you want every single microsecond.
The practical applications for this capability are significant, especially for autonomous vehicles. You have a million laser pulses to work with every second with the S3. Since you get to decide where each and every one of those pulses is aimed, your autonomous car probably wants to point most of them down the road ahead of it, with some off to the sides. But when the car is stopped at an intersection, it can “refocus” its LIDAR to the sides instead to be more effective at detecting cross traffic. This refocusing can happen dynamically and almost instantly, such that if your car is speeding down the road and spots a potential obstacle, it can focus as much of its LIDAR resources on that obstacle to collect the information that it needs to decide what to do next, while still continuing to collect (slightly sparser) data from everywhere else.
Let’s go over some of the other relevant specs for the S3. Frame rate is usually a big deal for LIDAR systems that spin, but with the S3, you just get a million points per second and you can decide what frame rate you want to deal with them at, since it’s all software controlled. Field of view is 120 degrees both horizontally and vertically. The minimum range is 10 centimeters, and the maximum range is at least 150 meters at 8 percent reflectivity. At 100 meters, the distance accuracy is +/- 5 cm, and the minimum spot size is just 9 cm. The S3 itself is 9 cm x 6 cm x 6 cm. Produced in volume, an S3 unit will cost $250 or less, Quanergy says. “Volume,” in this case, is about 100,000 units, which isn’t a lot in the automotive space. In a few more years, the company plans to release a $100 version that is on one integrated ASIC and is small enough to be (potentially) embedded into mobile devices, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
At CES Quanergy showed a Mercedes with the S3 LIDAR underneath the front panel. Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum
Of course, we wanted to experience the S3 LIDAR for ourselves, and after a little bit of pestering, we were allowed a brief private demo inside Quanergy’s Mercedes to see a prototype of the S3 in operation. We can’t tell you much about the demo (it’s under NDA), but we can certainly say that the S3 definitely works as a solid-state LIDAR. It’s not yet performing as well as Quanergy has promised that it will, for reasons that seem, well, reasonable, in that they’re not related to Quanergy’s underlying technology. At the same time, however, we’re obligated to point out that Quanergy has not yet demonstrated a version of the S3 that performs to the specifications that they announced at their press conference, leaving us wondering whether having a press conference of this kind at CES might have been somewhat premature.
What we’re really looking forward to is an announcement from Quanergy in a couple months saying, “Hey, that S3 we promised you? Here it is, fully armed and operational.” And we also wouldn’t mind an “Oh and if you want to come check it out we’ll send a private jet.” Private jet or no private jet, Quanergy is planning to have a preproduction S3 sensor ready to go at the end of September 2016 so that they can spend Q4 ramping up production, with deliveries to OEMs scheduled for early 2017.