At Opsys, we’ve been working on the next generation of LiDAR technology, because numerous automakers have expressed that current LiDAR solutions do not meet their mass-production requirements (automotive-grade reliability, integration options or manufacturability).
The LiDAR industry is in transition, one that many other industries have followed in the past century. When a technology first comes along, it’s usually some kind of mechanical system. It uses an engine or motors, devices with moving parts. Various companies sprout up with innovative ideas to differentiate themselves and their solutions. They get better and better, and some of them might even become the largest companies in the world. But as the next-generation technology is developed, the landscape can change very quickly.
Take computers for example. The first true computer, the ENIAC, filled an entire room. Computers in the 50s and 60s had rooms of tape-storage units. Companies like Data General perfected the main-frame computer business. IBM came along with a DOS system that took computers from centralized buildings and made computers personal, putting them on people’s desks. People barely remember Data General today even though it was once one of the largest companies in the world.
Cameras are another good example. For decades, the camera business revolved around how to make better mechanical shutters and film. Companies competed on getting the shutter speed down to fractions of a second. Eastman Kodak was a global power in the film business. When cameras became digital - making photography easier and considerably cheaper - Kodak chose to ignore the trend and is now a shadow of the company it was in its heydays. In the present day, smartphones can take high-quality pictures comparable to most professional cameras. All major camera manufacturers felt the pinch of decreasing sales as a result.
As the car industry makes a slow and steady move to BEVs, innovations in battery technology is similarly moving forward. Almost every major electric-vehicle company would like fully solid-state batteries. Some new kind of chemistry that doesn’t involve liquids. That will result in more reliable systems, fewer fires, and dramatically faster charging times. When it happens, the EV industry will never be the same.
This is also what is happening in the LiDAR space. We’re almost done with the first generation of mechanical spinning LiDARs that were adopted in the pilot phase of self-driving cars in the last decade. The current generation of LiDARs use motors that move mirrors to scan the laser beam around the entire field of view. Some companies move their entire array. Some use a galvanometer, a way to move their mirror with a separate motor. But almost all of them have similar processes. They steer a laser beam mechanically – making it an expensive, noisy, and complex process – that makes them susceptible to reliability, integration, and manufacturing problems. Several companies got to market quickly and attracted venture capital. Some went public and struck deals with automakers who needed to use the best-available technology at that time. But we are not seeing a lot of those deals result in LiDAR devices on true mass production vehicles.
We speak to automakers all the time, and they all tell us the same thing. They need solid-state devices that are smaller, cheaper, more reliable, and scalable. That is where the large-scale adoption and integration of LiDAR will occur in L3 systems in mass-market models of vehicles. And when solid-state LiDARs go into production, the appeal of previous generations of LiDARs will be greatly diminished for automotive mass-market applications.
At Opsys, we’re dedicated to giving the automakers what they need. Our electronic scanning system is truly solid state. We don’t move our laser array to get coverage. Instead, we use thousands of individual flashing units to cover the field of vision. We achieve a full field of view at 1,000 frames per second – many times faster than the human eye. This extremely high scan rate enables the system to average multiple samples and eliminate errors. Over the next months and years, Opsys will continue to fine-tune our system and fit it into the production systems of multiple automakers. This is all painstaking work, but the result will be the next generation of LiDAR, the one that will truly revolutionize auto safety.