Waymo said yesterday that it will sell its short-range lidar to companies that won’t use the laser-based sensor in order to compete with its robotaxi service. As most auto companies are in fact focusing on that service, most of the initial sales will be to non-automotive companies, like those that make forklifts or industrial robots.
One point is to raise production volumes, thus lowering the unit cost to Waymo itself. Another point is to shoulder aside Velodyne, the leading supplier of lidar, as well as the 60-plus startups that are nipping at its heels. Waymo must now be placed at or near the head of that list of competitors.
Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, first started looking into making its own lidar around 2011. In early 2017, CEO John Krafcik lifted the veil a bit on the work, quoting the famous computer scientist Alan Kay as saying that “people who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”
They should also keep their secrets. Last year Waymo launched a lawsuit against Uber for allegedly accepting stolen plans for its lidar technology.
Waymo makes three lidars—one that looks way down the road, another that looks into the middle distance, and a third that focuses on the vehicle’s immediate vicinity. That short-range lidar insures against blind spots, and it can also quickly produce a 3-D snapshot of an entire room. Waymo says that the lidar “has a minimum range of zero, meaning it can see objects immediately in front of the sensor. This enables key capabilities such as near-object detection and avoidance.”
A year ago, Waymo began running an experimental robotaxi service in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix, Ariz. Late last year, the company began charging a fee for that service to pre-selected users as part of a slow rollout of a true commercial service. Other companies that are working toward the same goal include GM Cruise and Daimler, together with Bosch.
Some automotive companies that do not plan a robotaxi service may want Waymo’s lidar as part of a package of advanced driver assistance systems, known as ADAS.
Simon Verghese, the head of Waymo’s lidar project, told Bloomberg that Waymo may yet sell to automotive suppliers, even though it would mean accepting a “huge overhead and a different way of doing business.” Verghese added that Waymo wasn’t interested in becoming an “all-out lidar company.”
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.