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3D Image Sensing in Autonomous Mobility Systems – Revolution or Evolution?

In late June we were part of organizing and attended a great conference hosted by OSA-OIDA in San Jose, featuring a range of Tier 1 Auto suppliers, leading edge LIDAR firms, supporting systems and on-board data processing players and major autotech investors. “Should we be a Cheetah, or a Hyena”was a challenge to C-Level mobility sector teams posed by Alexei Andreev from Autotech Ventures.

The context was that while large amount of capital and companies have been funded the past few years to address various aspects of driver-assist and ADAS vehicles with a vision for driverless systems, the realization in the market has become clear the timeframe to large scale deployments is pushing out, the aspects of technology readiness, integration challenges and Big Auto and regulatory processes are going to be slower than thought. We’ve gone from euphoria of landing and feasting on big game easily, to experiencing the easy prey is not so easy and the trough of disillusionment is upon the sector. Yes, some LIDAR firms like Princeton LightWave and Innoluce have been taken under the wings of large players like Ford-Argo and Infineon two years ago, but in mid 2019 we are seeing and hearing of struggles of LIDAR firms to produce results that work in big volume and to raise yet more $, a few like closing shop, and Big Auto and their incumbent supply chain are stepping into the “Standards” game to create methods to validate vendors solutions, test sensor suite architectures, and push down TCO costs. But many of these efforts like the AVSC organized by SAE with Ford, GM and Toyota are only focused on L4/5. And with that, pushing out timeframes of adoption beyond mere tests and trials is the clear result. While some investors and vendors tout Level 4 and 5 solutions, a preponderance of real-world dialog is now around L2 and L2.5 or 2+/3. 

The talks by TE Connectivity and Aquantia highlighted that the auto infrastructure for moving and processing data from extensive sensor suites, in particular LIDAR, is a gating factor that the auto manufacturers will address but in their conservative manner. As of June 2019 there are only 1400 self-driving cars in on-road test in the US, run by 80+ firms, with Waymo having the major share. In contrast, Tesla with over 500,000 cars collecting data over a broad area, arguably has much more data for mining best of bred solutions and corner cases in real world situations. In late May at a Stanford University optical sensing workshop, the head of Ford’s Palo Alto R&D Center said they track over 80 LIDAR firms not including several in stealth or formation, plus several dozen radar and camera firms with the vast majority being suitable for Level 3 or lower. When asked about the timing for Level 4 and 5, the comment was for L5, it’s at least 25 years, maybe never; for Level 4 and getting the on-board bandwidth to handle it within latency needed – maybe 5-10 years as some stock analysts have opined recently.  So while VC backed firms burst from the gates like Cheetahs drooling for the big game to live off of for years, the near term strategy may call for picking some bite size pieces to feast on in viable application spaces. 

We are optimistic that LIDAR will play a material role in mobility sensing solutions, in and beyond auto. Having been involved for 20+ years in the optical component and systems sector as an investor, advisor and founder, including having roles with a successful LIDAR innovator in Princeton LightWave, we are clearly in inning 1 of a long game. One colleague from the OSA-OIDA Optical Sensor planning committee did some calculations based on major choices of components that go into a LIDAR unit and choices for market focus and manufacturing processes, estimating there are over 1000 product design configurations. While half of these won’t match a best cost or market need, it is worth noting that of the estimated 100 LIDAR firms known today, they don’t yet scratch all possible viable design-market alternatives. Wave 1 of the technology and companies will be followed by another wave.  Many of these Wave 1 firms are hunting in the same fields, or without adequate fuel to get to speed, trying to be a Cheetah. Several LIDAR firms have reached beyond the auto big game to find valuable pockets of opportunity in industrial, avionics and security sensing. As in all early perceived hyper-growth market opportunities, when reality hits, some firms will go to the graveyards, some will narrow their hunting focus near term, and some will merge to broaden their hunting base so that they can morph into Hyenas to live and maybe return as a future Cheetahs.

On behalf of OSA, the organizers Rob Murano of II-VI, Sabbir Rangwala of Patience Consulting and John Dexheimer of LightWave Advisors, we thank the June 27 speakers representing AEYE, Analog Devices, Aquantia, Autotech Ventures, Fabrinet, Finisar, Gener8, Guangzhou Automotive Corp, North American Lighting (Koito Group), Ouster, Robert Bosch, Rockley Photonics, Samtec,Spatial Integrated Systems, TE Connectivity, Tetravue, Tractica, Veoneer.

Next issues:

·       Advice to Entrepreneurs on Corporate Venture Capital

·       Playing the LIDAR Match Game

·       Standards Initiatives for Auto ADAS –Status and Implications

·       Driving Toward Chip-Scale LIDAR