Why Elon Musk is wrong about lidar

Feb. 3, 2020
Lasers have the reputation of being expensive, especially when you enter the consumer space. This discussion is occurring currently around the use of lidar for autonomous vehicles.
Allen Nogee 720

It seems like every time lasers are used in an up-and-coming new area, there is always much debate on if some other non-laser way of doing the same task would be better (and usually cheaper). Lasers have the reputation of being expensive, especially when you enter the consumer space. This discussion is occurring currently around the use of light detection and ranging (lidar) for autonomous vehicles. Lidar has been expensive, so can autonomous vehicles operate without it? Instead, they are relying upon radar, cameras, and ultrasonic sensors for autonomous vehicles, but NOT lidar.

I live in Arizona, where currently almost 600 fully autonomous vehicles roam the streets, mostly vehicles produced by Waymo. Starting last November (2019), the Waymo fleet started operating without a safety driver behind the wheel. Even for someone who is a big supporter of new technology, seeing one of these cars pull behind you or alongside of you for the first time is a bit scary. 

The modified Chrysler Pacifica minivans that Waymo uses in Arizona has five lidar unitsa large one on the top, one in the rear, one in the front, and one on each side of the front. Interestingly, Waymo has designed its own lidar sensors for recent models of its vehicles, and starting mid-2019, the company even started selling one of these lidar units to other companies when it doesn’t directly compete with Waymo. Still, even with the cost-reduced in-house lidar sensors, the total lidar cost per vehicle is likely still close to $10,000. 

On the other end of the spectrum is Elon Musk, whose stance against including lidar on autonomous vehicles is not a secret, even so much as saying last April that “Anyone relying on lidar is doomed.” Elon has never been one to mince words. 

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Editor's Note: Don't forget to Review Nogee’s laser market forecast numbers in our annual Laser Focus World report entitled “Laser markets navigate turbulent times.”

About the Author

Allen Nogee | President, Laser Markets Research

Allen Nogee has over 30 years' experience in the electronics and technology industry including almost 20 years in technology market research. He has held design-engineering positions at MCI Communications, GTE, and General Electric, and senior research positions at In-Stat, NPD Group, and Strategies Unlimited.

Nogee has become a well-known and respected analyst in the area of lasers and laser applications, with his research and forecasts appearing in publications such as Laser Focus World, Industrial Laser Solutions, Optics.org, and Laser Institute of America. He has also been invited to speak at conferences such as the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO), Laser Focus World's Lasers & Photonics Marketplace Seminar, the European Photonics Industry Consortium Executive Laser Meeting, and SPIE Photonics West.

Nogee has a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering Technology from the Rochester Institute of Technology, and a Master's of Business Administration from Arizona State University.

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