Waymo may have just made self-driving cars affordable

Google spinoff Waymo may have just made minivans cool.

Well, as much as anyone can actually do that. It is still a minivan, after all. But now, it is a minivan with self-driving capabilities, and for a significantly lower price than previous self-driving cars. So how did Waymo do that?

In IT Blogwatch, we hit the road.

So what is going on? Keith Naughton and Mark Bergen have the background:

Alphabet Inc.’s...Waymo has slashed the cost of a key technology required to bring self-driving cars to the masses and rolled it out...in an autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivan...Waymo has cut costs by 90 percent on LiDAR sensors, which bounce light off objects to create a three-dimensional map of a car’s surroundings.

Any why is this so important? Raphael Orlove has some insight:

One of the reasons LiDAR isn’t on all cars...is because a spinning LiDAR turret is big and bulky...but also because these arrays aren’t cheap...This cost-saving would be a huge step forward for getting complete autonomy into production...Getting the price down for these arrays is crucial if anyone other than the super-rich will buy a self-driving car. It should come as little surprise that of all of the car companies...promising autonomy in the near future, the closest ones have been aiming at the luxury segment.

So what is the full array of sensors that the Pacificas are sporting? Michael Wayland is in the know:

The...system includes...a short-range and a long-range LiDAR...in addition to a medium-range LiDAR that the company has used...in the early days of its project...the new camera “vision system” includes eight vision modules using multiple sensors, plus an additional forward-facing high resolution multi-sensor module, enabling 360-degree vision. It also includes enhanced radars with “a continuous 360 degree view.”
Waymo’s technology is built for...Level 4 automated driving, which means the vehicle can operate in most circumstances autonomously but may at some point need a human driver to...take over.

Got it. But how did Waymo get the price down? And how much does LiDAR really cost? Duncan Riley shares some numbers:

Waymo is...making its own LiDAR sensors...It has brought the cost down...from $75,000 per unit in 2009 to a far more affordable $7,500 a unit now, with an aim to reduce that even further.

How much further can the price really be reduced? And when are we going to start seeing these minivans hit the road? Alexandria Sage and Paul Lienert have the details:

Velodyne Lidar Inc and Quanergy Systems Inc...have said they are developing smaller solid-state LiDAR units that...would cost $200 or less.
John Krafcik, head of Google's Waymo unit...said Waymo planned to test the first self-driving Pacificas this month on...roads in California and Arizona. He did not say when the system would be ready to install in production vehicles.

Besides the obvious, why is this good for Waymo? Jason Del Rey fills us in:

The nuts and bolts of how autonomous technology works won't be the way car companies differentiate themselves. But...building a better suite of sensors and hardware can be key to securing the right partners.

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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