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From Google to Tesla, it’s a War of LiDAR or RADAR

In December 2016, Uber tested its autonomous cars on the roads of San Francisco and set the stage of the driverless car industry to enter mainstream transportation. A report by Allied Market Research predicts that the driverless car industry is likely to reduce fuel consumption by 10%, while simultaneously decreasing the risk of road accidents and concurrent loss of life.

These are realities that are waiting to happen, and they are heavily relying on sensor technology. The autonomous vehicle industry is highly dependent on four major sensor technologies for obstacle management by autonomous vehicles. These include LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), RADAR (RAdio Detection And Ranging ), Ultrosonic sensors and Passive Visual sensors such as Cameras.

UnitedLex has compared these four sensor technologies using the Likert Scale to evaluate their features and performance parameters under various driving conditions.

The four major sensor technologies evaluated on the Likert Scale.

Performance chart of the four major sensor technologies based on the Likert Scale.

IP Landscape of the four major sensor technologies

The global patent landscape in LiDAR, RADAR, Ultrasonic and Camera Sensing technologies shows that RADAR technology is a popular area of R&D focus. Over 7,000 IP assets (patents and applications) have been filed in this space. Camera sensor technology is another popular research vertical with over 6,500 IP assets filed globally. While LiDAR is growing in popularity, the high manufacturing cost seems to have affected its market adoption. However, innovation in this space seems to be improving in recent times.

Most autonomous vehicles use a combination of these four technologies to power up sensor capabilities and make autonomous driving safer. However, competition is rife between LiDAR and RADAR concepts, with each vying for a majority market share.

Number of IP assets filed across the four major sensor technologies globally.

LIDAR or RADAR: Which will gain a stronghold?

A technology’s evolution undergoes periods of continuity and discontinuity when it enjoys a strong phase of research and development. The phase following the period of discontinuity is what allows the technology to become more adoptable and adaptable to the needs of the time.

Stages of technology evolution from conceptualization to becoming a Dominant Design. Adapted from a research paper “Technological Discontinuities and Dominant Designs: A Cyclical Model of Technological Change” by Philip Anderson and Michael L. Tushman.

Source: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2393511

The concept of autonomous cars has existed for about a century now. While prototypes were created in the past, they never reached a stage of common utilization. Even now, autonomous cars are in a phase of development; however, this phase is fast-paced with major technology breakthroughs to enhance the smartness of a vehicle. One integral smart component is sensor technology. Sensor technology plays a key role in ensuring that the vehicle maintains a safe distance from obstacles in its path.

Companies are experimenting with the aforementioned technologies in various combinations to suit their autonomous vehicle prototypes. Let’s look at Google and Tesla. Google’s driverless car depends on LiDAR as its primary sensor which functions best in well-lit environments. However, in conditions of snow fall, rain and darkness, LiDAR loses its optimal functional capacity. To tackle this, Google has included the other three sensors to take over when LiDAR fails and thus ensure seamless assistance to the autonomous driving system.

Tesla has however kept LiDAR out of its autonomous vehicle’s ambit. It has included RADAR, Camera and Ultrasonic technologies to power its vehicle’s sensors. However, it’s sister firm SpaceX has included LiDAR in its vehicles. A reason for Tesla opting out of the LiDAR system may be attributed to the cost of the sensor. If you refer to the chart above, you will understand that Tesla might have a hardware cost that is equal to a next generation solid-state LiDAR sensor which has greater capabilities and can overcome the current sensor’s shortcomings.

The technologies adopted by Tesla and Google are both in the “era of ferment” and are competing against each other to become the dominant design. But they demand significant improvement to offer a seamless experience and replace traditional car technologies. The era of ferment is believed to have achieved its goal only when a discontinuous invention comes into commercial use and occupies 50% of the industrial application within the first three years of its commercial practice. This means that LiDAR, RADAR and their complementary sensor technologies are poised for significant product innovation in the next few years. This will help reduce costs of both technologies leading to increased adoption by the common man.

Image capturing various surround sensing technologies in an automobile.
(Source: http://www.economist.com/node/21560989)

Developers of LiDAR need to follow a stringent path of process innovation to manufacture sensor systems that are economically viable. This will help LiDAR pave its way to become a market leader in automotive surround sensing in vehicles. Similarly, while RADAR and Camera technologies enjoy a cost-advantage, they are challenged with enhancing their sensor capabilities.

There have been multiple crashes involving autonomous cars in recent times across the U.S., China, Netherlands and Switzerland. To address this, there is a sense of urgency for researchers to drive major improvements and build trust among consumers’. LiDAR requires process innovations to reduce the cost of sensors, while RADAR will have to improve product innovations to maintain its market share. It remains to be seen which technology advances at a faster pace to improve surround sensing technology into a safe and economically feasible option.