According to the Wall Street Journal CIO Journal, China is investing in autonomous vehicle technology. One interesting US based company in the mix is Velodyne Acoustics. Velodyne acoustics? You mean the same guys that make high-end subwoofers for my home theater? Yes. And you just thought the creation of bass was just for sophomoric dummies… The company creates sensors for obstacle detection. Mobileye in Israel is already making the next stage of adaptive cruise control systems, and it is only a matter of time before we can take our hands off of the wheel completely. I am only awaiting the day when the two technologies Velodyne creates combine and we get the first self-driven dB Dragster. Now that’s cool!
China Is Investing in Automated Car Technology
One California startup says it is providing key driverless car technology to an increasing number of customers around the world, including in China, where the state-controlled economy could help companies in the race against U.S. rivals such as Google Inc.
David Hall, founder and CEO of Velodyne Acoustics Inc., makes the high-definition laser sensors that have turned out to be a critical enabling technology in the development of automated vehicles. The question now is how quickly the market for that technology will mature. It could be as soon as five years, depending upon whom you ask.
Earlier generations of driverless cars used sensors based on cameras, radar and GPS. Velodyne packs lots of laser sensors, known as lidar, into a single unit and integrates their data. “GPS just isn’t good enough. You need lidar,” Mr. Hall said. A lifelong inventor whose grandfather worked on the Manhattan Project, Mr. Hall used his training as a machinist and a software developer to create the new device himself. The challenges included figuring out how to bridge the air gap that separates the bottom of the sensor from the quickly spinning top, so that electrical power can flow up, and data collected by the lasers can flow down.
A Google car with a Velodyne sensor attached to the roof.
He says that car companies in China are buying his sensors and that if China pulls ahead in development of the technology, other companies will have a very hard or even impossible time catching up, because China’s government has the ability to direct lots of capital into research and to limit or eliminate exposure of researchers and car makers to lawsuits.
Mr. Hall says the price of the sensors, currently $75,000 to $85,000 each, will plummet as soon as a mass market for the technology develops. “All you need to do is invest $1 billion in a production line in Asia, and the price of these sensors will drop to the level of a camera, a few hundred dollars,” he told CIO Journal during an interview in Morgan Hill, Calif., where the company, mostly known for its audio technology, is based. “Everyone says I should make cheaper sensors, but I am not going to do that until I believe the market is two or three years away from developing. It is a chicken and egg problem.” He says he believes that companies such as Google Inc. still have quite a bit of work to do on the technology, before it is fully ready. While 90% of the technological problems may have been solved, addressing the remaining 10% of problems may require the majority of the work.
Chris Urmson, the head of Google’s autonomous car research, told CIO Journal during an interview at company headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., that solving the remaining technological challenges will be accomplished “sooner than people think.” Last year, Google suggested consumers would be able to buy autonomous cars based on its technology within about five years. Car companies already are introducing cars with semi-autonomous features such as dynamic cruise control and lane-sensing technology.
Google has a fleet of about 20 driverless cars that its engineers are testing on public roads. The cars are fully autonomous on highways, adjusting their speed, keeping themselves centered in lanes, avoiding unexpected hazards, and shifting aside as trucks pass them. The research on city driving is underway.
The Google cars are equipped with a range of sensors, the most important of which are the Velodyne devices. The roof-mounted sensors include 64 lasers that emit vertical rays of laser light, which identify objects in their path up to a range of about 100 meters. The device rotates 10 times per second, capturing 1.3 million pieces of information per second and creating a 3-D image that onboard computers analyze in real time, making it possible for a car to drive itself.
Mr. Hall says he believes that cars should be fully autonomous or leave all the work to human drivers, less people become complacent behind the wheel. Says Mr. Hall: “I am not a fan of semi-autonomous vehicles.”