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LIDAR Costs to Make Self-driving Cars Expensive for Consumers

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【Summary】An entry level LIDAR unit costs around $8,000 and leverages 16 beams of light, with two-degree increments and a range of 100 meters. An $80,000 high-end LIDAR sensor is capable of emitting up to 64 laser beams, in increments of 0.4 degrees with a range of 120 meters.

Michael Cheng    Aug 04, 2017 2:00 PM PT
LIDAR Costs to Make Self-driving Cars Expensive for Consumers

What will the availability of self-driving cars be like when they are released to commercial markets? Factoring in overwhelming costs associated with hardware components required to operate one, the first generation SAE-L5 (no gas and breaking pedals) driverless vehicle could come with a hefty price tag, ranging between $300,000 and $400,000, according to Austin Russell, CEO of Silicon Valley startup Luminar.

The reason for the dream-crushing prediction is the current state of LIDAR systems. At the moment, low-quality and cheap variants aren't reliable enough for complex driverless maneuvers on public roads. Furthermore, there hasn't been a major performance upgrade in the technology in decades – though this will likely change in the near future, now that automakers are startups are channeling their efforts to manufacture more robust LIDAR units.

"It will be like camera sensors," explained Graeme Smith, CEO of Oxbotica. "When we first had camera phones, they were kind of basic cameras. And then we got to a certain point where nobody really cared anymore because there was a finite limit to the human eye."

Different Approaches and Solutions

Driving down the cost of LIDAR sensors and improving success rates during detection won't happen overnight. To effectively keep costs low for consumers, there has to be a significant technological breakthrough in the sector. Currently, high-quality models go for roughly $80,000, which are the same units being used in self-driving pilot programs around cities. When the sensing component is configured and optimized for autonomous driving by the automaker or developer, the price could go up even higher.

The other option is to use a low-cost LIDAR machine, but with a huge sacrifice in performance. To compare, an entry level LIDAR unit costs around $8,000 and leverages 16 beams of light, with two-degree increments and a range of 100 meters. The $80,000 high-end LIDAR sensor that was referenced above is capable of emitting up to 64 laser beams, in increments of 0.4 degrees with a range of 120 meters.

Existing LIDAR machines are expensive because they use mechanical parts. To drive costs down, manufacturers are looking to shift to solid-state designs (no moving parts, resulting in less maintenance and increased reliability). Due to the challenges associated with commercializing LIDAR parts, the technology is at risk of being superseded by a more effective (and low cost) sensing method.

Anticipating the Roll Out

A fully autonomous car isn't the only way for tech-savvy consumers to experience modern driving. Russell believes self-driving vehicles with partially autonomous features will be common within the next 10 years. This includes many of the latest features that are available in cars today, such as emergency breaking, automatic high beams and lane departure warning. While more driverless features are expected to roll out by 2022, an SAE-L5 autonomous vehicle that can handle anything and everything on the road will likely reach mainstream consumers by 2030.

"Cars with partial autonomy may be more widely available, while the majority of people will get their first ride in a fully-autonomous car through a ride-sharing service. Large fleet operators will be better able to shoulder the cost of the technology," said Russell.

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