Demand for lidar, one of the key technologies driving autonomous car development, is outstripping supply, leaving customers waiting for backlogs to clear.
Lidar, short for light detection and ranging, is one of the three technologies used as the eyes for self-driving cars. Lidar, radar and cameras are often used together to map a full picture for a self-driving vehicle.
The demand for lidar has some customers waiting more than six months to get their orders filled, compared with a few weeks for delivery just a year ago. The Silicon Valley publication The Information reported in March that researchers at the University of Waterloo in Ontario had to put their self-driving car program on hold after its 5-year-old lidar broke, and the team was told by lidar manufacturer Velodyne that it would take six months to get a new one.
Velodyne, based in Morgan Hill, Calif., is the automotive industry's main supplier of lidar. It has a long list of customers, including top automakers and tech companies. In the fourth quarter, Velodyne's lidar shipments tripled year-over-year, and the company expects them to keep growing. Velodyne shipped a few thousand lidars last year and could ship more than 10,000 in 2017, said Velodyne President Mike Jellen.
"Unfortunately, we have been backed up on allocation, and we have had some customers waiting," Jellen said. "At the same time, we're growing rapidly to try to help customers."
To meet demand, Velodyne open-ed what it calls a megafactory in January in San Jose, Calif. Production will begin there later in April. The company's Morgan Hill factory will remain in production for Velodyne's "heritage products," while the San Jose site will be "geared for high volume and advanced engineering to adapt for a new wave of products," said COO Marty Neese.
Manufacturing lidar can be a time-consuming process. Neese said Velodyne's lidar is incredibly dense in terms of the number of lasers and sensors in each unit. "There's an alignment process, and the two have to get along as friends and talk well and understand each other as components," Neese said. "Today that requires intervention that takes a little bit of time."
Kristin Schondorf, executive director of automotive and transportation mobility with EY, said the current investment in and demand for lidar were unexpected. The tech industry has been pouring money into lidar for only about five years, she said. The lidar waitlist creates an opportunity for newer companies to scoop out a bigger place in the market. Established companies shouldn't get too comfortable, Schondorf said, because new technology could overtake the current lidar systems.
For example, Schondorf said she met a CEO of relatively new company in November at EY's Strategic Growth Forum, an invite-only CEO forum for fast-growing and leading companies. The company is developing a lidar-type system that is an alternative to lidar that the CEO claims will be less expensive and more accurate than what is available now.
"A bigger company really does need to look at how they maintain their edge," Schondorf said, as new entrants "are working to get a better product out there."
Some lidar startups have partnered with automakers or suppliers to help get their technology on the market and drive its price down. Lidar costs thousands of dollars, but some startups, such as Quanergy, are working on it. In March, Quanergy said it planned to start manufacturing $250 lidar systems later this year.
"The auto industry is the Wild West, and there's a technology gold rush," Schondorf said. "Everyone wants to be the first to market this and mass-produce it."
Obstruction detected: 6-month wait for lidar originally appeared on Automotive News