LiDAR Technology Innovations for Robotaxis
To achieve any level of autonomous driving, vehicles abundantly rely on cameras, sensors and radars to automate functions such as emergency braking, cruise control and blind spot monitoring. However, there are limitations associated with depth and range perception while utilising these types of sensors. To alleviate these issues, Light Detection and Ranging, known as LiDAR, is being adopted as the next-generation technology for use with autonomous vehicles and self-driving.
LiDAR and its Synergies with Autonomous Vehicles
LiDAR technology took the form of spinning cylindrical devices in early self-driving vehicles but evolved to a more compact and sleeker design later. The maps provided by these devices are crucial for self-driving as they provide an accurate representation of the depth and range of objects and therefore aid the self-driving car in “visualising” its surroundings.
LiDAR mapping has been successfully implemented by General Motors in its hands-free autonomous driving technology known as Super Cruise. This will be superseded in 2023 by Ultra Cruise which integrates a physical LiDAR sensor behind the windshield, rather than relying on pre-existing maps created with specific LiDAR mapping equipment as in Super Cruise. Other Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) such as Ford and Volkswagen have partnered with Argo AI to develop commercial-grade self-driving autonomous vehicles that utilise onboard LiDAR. Here, Argo AI’s technology is being implemented within the self-driving light commercial sector with the aim of launching a commercial delivery and micro-transit service in Germany in 2025. Furthermore, LiDAR will also find favour with robotaxis.
How is LiDAR Influencing the Robotaxi Market?
Robotaxis operate as an autonomous taxi via an e-hailing service where passengers can request transportation using a smartphone.
Therefore, autonomous vehicles without drivers will help reduce operational costs and improve affordability.
The implementation of robotaxi fleets has been slow with only a few services being offered worldwide so far. A notable example of a Robotaxi service that is currently available is the LiDAR based package offered by Waymo. Here, consumers can fly into Phoenix, USA and hail a self-driving Chrysler Pacifica with no safety driver on-board. However, scaling an autonomous ride hailing service is a huge undertaking and requires overcoming significant challenges concerning programming, safety, logistics, mechanics and economics.
LiDAR is a crucial technology that must be successfully implemented for robotaxi services to flourish with widespread market penetration. Almost all vehicle developers and robotaxi fleet operators see LiDAR as a crucial safety layer that will allow cars to take over driving duties on highways, allowing drivers to check emails or watch movies during the rides. It is a significant step forward from Tesla’s Autopilot and General Motors Super Cruise driver-assistance systems, which require drivers to maintain their eyes and thoughts on the road even when their hands are off the steering wheel.
One company that recently dismissed the use of LiDAR for self-driving was Tesla who suggested that LiDAR and high-definition maps in its driving assistant portfolio are not required and that they would instead prefer to rely on a multitude of cameras and sensors. However, Tesla has recently been spotted testing LiDAR cameras provided by Luminar attached to a Tesla Model Y. This could either suggest that Tesla’s stance on adopting LiDAR with regards to self-driving is softening or that they are validating their full self-driving features using Luminar’s LiDAR system. If the former case is true, it is likely that the Robotaxi market adopting LiDAR will expand dramatically due to the significant influence Tesla has on the automotive and self-driving markets.
In late 2019, a complete LiDAR perception solution for Robotaxis was unveiled in China by RoboSense. The RoboSense RS-Fusion-P5 relies on an RS-Ruby mounted on top of the vehicle to provide a sensing range of more than 200 metres. However, if the field of view of the device approaches the ideal angle range of -25° to +15° there remains a minor blind spot surrounding the vehicle body. To mitigate this and ensure a complete 360° surround vision, four RS-BPearl short-range units are placed horizontally around the vehicle to generate a hemispheric field of view scanning region relative to the perspective of the vehicle.
AutoX, a Chinese self-driving car company, debuted its Gen5 Robotaxis in late 2021. They incorporate 50 sensors, 6 high resolution LiDAR sensors, 28 cameras and a 4D radar with a vehicle control unit having a processing capacity of 2,200 tera operations per second. The higher resolution of the Gen5 system allows vehicles to be driven at higher speeds with its latest system capable of allowing driving on complex urban streets whilst detecting vehicles from several hundred meters away. Following a successful launch, it began operating a Robotaxi service in Shanghai in late 2021 and conducted driverless trials in California, USA slighter earlier on in the year.
In early 2022, Aurora Innovation, an autonomous vehicle technology start-up, launched a small test fleet of self-driving Toyota Siennas for future ride-hailing operations. According to an Aurora representative, the business will test its cars on highways and suburban streets in the Dallas-Fort Worth, USA region, with a focus on high-speed routes. These hybrid Toyotas are equipped with the latest Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave (FMCW) LiDAR which is a diversion from the traditional AM LiDAR which operates by emitting brief light pulses at a fixed frequency. FMCW LiDAR emits a constant stream of light and alters the frequency of the light at regular intervals. This allows the location and velocity of the objects to be determined using the Doppler effect. Furthermore, this technology provides significantly better range performance as compared to AM LiDAR, allowing more time to react to unexpected obstacles.
For LiDAR, there is no perfect laser solution. However, to overcome technological obstacles and fulfil the fast-growing demand for LiDAR within the autonomous driving and robotaxi sectors, laser and optics manufacturers are accelerating research and development. Several advances in semiconductor laser technology appear to be on the horizon including Edge Emitting Lasers (EELs) which are typically more powerful than surface emitting lasers. Both will find favour in the autonomous and robotaxi sectors with each customer adopting their LiDAR of choice based on a typical cost vs. benefit trade-off.
It is estimated that the global autonomous vehicle market size will increase from US$45 billion in 2022 to US$161 billion by 2028. Within this sector, the global robotaxi market is poised to increase from US$1.0 billion in 2023 to US$38.6 billion by 2030. The market will grow due to factors such as increased requirement of road safety, increasing environmental concerns, and increased demand for ride-hailing services. Furthermore, the worldwide robotaxi market is growing because of increased government efforts and increased investments by major organisations in the automotive sector. The favourable influence of autonomous vehicle advances undertaken by multiple start-ups and major OEMs feeds the industry globally, increasing the size of the robotaxi business. Finally, advances in sensor technology (LiDAR, Radar etc.) and quantum computing technology will further enhance market penetration of both personal and commercial autonomous vehicles which will directly influence the robotaxi market.