Canada's LeddarTech Advancing Solid-State LiDAR for Self-Driving Cars

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【Summary】Having built an impressive lead in artificial intelligence, with new research facilities opened by Google, Microsoft and Uber, Canada is ready to do the same for self-driving cars — specifically the LiDAR technology that allows self-driving cars to see down the road.

Eric Walz    Oct 20, 2017 6:23 PM PT
Canada's LeddarTech Advancing Solid-State LiDAR for Self-Driving Cars

QUEBEC CITY — Having built a strong lead in artificial intelligence, with new research facilities opened by Google, Microsoft and Uber, Canada is ready to do the same for driverless cars — specifically the LiDAR technology that allows self-driving cars to see down the road.

The nation's major player in this field is LeddarTech Inc. The Quebec City based company makes solid-state technology, which the company says is superior and less expensive than earlier versions of LiDAR, and sells it to hardware makers, which in turn embed it into their hardware.

LeddarTech has attracted big-name industry backers including Delphi Automotive, Germany's Osram Licht and Fiat Chrysler's parts division, which last month participated in a $100 million fundraising round.

Over the next 20 years, as automotive active safety systems evolve to autonomous driving systems, LiDAR is seen as becoming the largest segment of automotive detection and ranging sensors, complementing or replacing radars and cameras.

The market for the technology is expected to grow tenfold to $2.5 billion by 2027, according to Akhilesh Kona, a senior analyst at IHS Markit, and become much bigger as cars become increasingly autonomous.

The global market for advanced driver assist systems (ADAS) is forecast to grow rapidly to over $60 billion in revenue by 2020. Analysts expect LiDAR to become a central element of the autonomous car's sensor suite, working alongside existing technologies, ensuring robust sensing redundancy and increasing overall system reliability.

Competition in the LiDAR Field

LeddarTech has other well-funded rivals. Among them is Silicon Valley based Velodyne Lidar Inc., which has the backing of Ford Motor Co., China's Baidu, and Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo, which is working on its own its own lidar systems. "Competition exists simply because the opportunity is so great," says LeddarTech chief executive officer Charles Boulanger. Those that survive will be rewarded with a "major pot of gold."

LeddarTech's only local competition is another Quebec-based startup called Phantom Intelligence, which secured an investment from Korean auto parts maker Sungwoo Hitech Co. Ltd. this summer.

Driverless cars "see" the world around them using data from cameras, radar and lidar, which bounces laser light off objects to assess shape and location. High-speed processors, such as Nvidia's Drive PX Platform, process the data to provide 360-degree detection of lanes, traffic, pedestrians, signs, stoplights and anything else in the vehicle's path. That enables it to decide, in real time, where to go.

Solid State Solution

Today's mechanical version of lidar is large and bulky, resembling a spinning bucket mounted to the roof of a vehicle. With its moving parts, the technology is much too expensive — costing up to $70,000. The mechanical LiDAR is also vulnerable to wear, affecting reliability.

Companies are now shifting their efforts to solid-state technology, which contains no moving parts and are much less susceptible to mechanical failure and changing weather conditions. Silicon Valley based Velodyne, which helped pioneer the mechanical lidar which was used on Google's first self-driving car prototypes, introduced a solid-state version of its LiDAR technology this summer.

The costs are already starting to fall. Another Silicon Valley start-up Quanergy Systems Inc., says it's manufacturing a product for about $250 and expects to bring that cost below $100 in three or four years.

LeddarTech Company History

LeddarTech was spun out of the National Optics Institute, a Canadian government-funded research facility in Quebec City. Back in the 1980's, the dean of Laval University persuaded the federal and provincial governments that optics and photonics were the future of tech. Not long after, a small research team began developing lidar in conjunction with a research agency at the Department of National Defense, which wanted technology that could detect biological warfare agents.

solid state module.jpg

Pictured - A LeddarTech Solid-State LiDAR Module (Image Source LeddarTech)

About 10 years ago, LeddarTech researchers started working on solid-state lidar for autonomous cars — long before many of its competitors. While its technology still costs a few hundred dollars, the company says it produces images that are 25 times sharper than rival LiDAR, meaning a driverless car can more precisely maintain awareness of nearby pedestrians, vehicles and other objects.

IHS Markit's Kona says the company has a good chance of being a real contender because its platform can be easily adapted to a range of technologies and suppliers. "LeddarTech can be a winning model," he said in an interview.

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