Velodyne claims to have broken the US $100 barrier for automotive lidar with its tiny Velabit, which it unveiled at CES earlier this month.
“Claims” is the mot juste because this nice, round dollar amount is an estimate based on the mass-manufacturing maturity of a product that has yet to ship. Such a factoid would hardly be worth mentioning had it come from some of the several-score odd lidar startups that haven’t shipped anything at all. But Velodyne created this industry back during DARPA-funded competitions, and has been the market leader ever since.
“The projection is $100 at volume; we’ll start sampling customers in the next few months,” Anand Gopalan, the company’s chief technology officer, tells IEEE Spectrum.
The company says in a release that the Velabit “delivers the same technology and performance found on Velodyne’s full suite of state-of-the-art sensors.” Given the device’s small size, that must mean the solid-state version of the technology. That is, the non-rotating kind.
Gopalan wouldn’t say much about how it works, only that the beam-steering did not use tiny mirrors based on micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS). “It differs from MEMS in that there’s no loss of form factor or loss of light,” he said. “In the most general language, it uses a metamaterial activated by low-cost electronics.”
Metamaterials also figure in a lidar from Lumotive.
The Velabit is no replacement for Velodyne’s iconic rotating roof tower, whose 128 laser beams rake a 360-degree field. To get that much coverage from this little lidar, you’d need six units; even then you’d see just 100 meters out, compared to the 128 beamer’s nearly 220 meters.
That’s okay. The new product isn’t meant for true driverless cars, of which there are precisely none on the market now (or likely anytime soon). Rather it’s for use in advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), such as emergency braking, lane keeping, and adaptive cruise control.
“In the past 12 to 18 months [carmakers] are saying that lidar can be a very important tool for ADAS,” Gopalan says. “And even in a luxury car, a safety option can’t cost more than few thousand [dollars]; a single device therefore has to be less.”
Another advantage is the Velabit’s compactness—at 6 x 6 x 3.5 centimeters, smaller than a deck of cards—which makes it possible for car designers to hide it, say, in the grille. It also makes it suitable for use in drones, robots, and road signs.
After specializing in hand-aligned apparatus that it sold in tiny numbers at stratospheric prices—around $80,000 for the 128-beam machine—Velodyne has moved to fully automated assembly, higher volumes, and lower margins. That was always going to happen as lidar moved out of the lab and into commercial products. But competitive pressures were also at play.
Velodyne once eschewed short- and medium-range lidar. Then Waymo, which was undoubtedly Velodyne’s largest single customer, began designing and building lidars of all ranges in-house. Last March, it began selling the short-range model.
Even the high end is getting more competitive and less stratospheric. At CES, Ouster showed off its own 128-beam rooftop monster. It will sell at the low, low price of $24,000.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.