Shrinking lidar down to a chip offers big rewards

Paul van Gerven
Reading time: 9 minutes

Still a rather clunky and expensive instrument, the automotive and many other markets eagerly await the availability of an affordable and compact lidar system. Integrated photonics is coming to the rescue.

Elon Musk’s disdain for lidar used to be well-established. “Lidar is a fool’s errand. Anyone relying on it is doomed. Doomed! They’re expensive sensors that are unnecessary,” Tesla’s Technoking proclaimed during a discussion about self-driving vehicle technology in 2019. He appears to have softened his stance a bit, as earlier this year a Tesla Y test vehicle fitted with rooftop lidar sensors was spotted in Florida. Subsequently, Bloomberg uncovered that Tesla has a testing and development contract with California lidar company Luminar Technologies.

With that change of mind, Tesla joins the consensus among automotive companies that lidar is an essential technology for making advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) and self-driving vehicles a reality. Radar has a great range in a wide range of conditions but limited resolution. Cameras have excellent resolution, but they don’t work well in the dark or bad weather. Lidar works fine at night and is also capable of providing high resolution. The three, therefore, complement each other nicely. As an added, possibly crucial bonus, some types of lidar can not only gauge the distance to objects but also determine their speed.

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