Lidar: The Key to Unlocking the Future of Autonomous Vehicles
May 23, 2023

As autonomous vehicles (AV) become increasingly attractive, one technology that is playing a crucial role in their development is lidar, according to Lidar 2023-2033: Technologies, Players, Markets & Forecasts, a report from IDTechEx.

Lidar, short for Light Detection and Ranging, is a remote sensing method that uses lasers to measure distances and create detailed 3D maps of the environment. The automotive lidar market is expected to grow to US$8.4 billion by 2033, driven by the increasing adoption of AVs and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), as predicted by IDTechEx.

Lidar in Automotive Applications

Various sensors are essential to enable ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) and AVs (Autonomous Vehicles), including cameras, radars, ultrasonic systems, etc. Cameras offer color and high-definition images but suffer from poor depth information and can be easily affected by the sun and other poor weather conditions. Ultrasonic systems are very cheap but have a very short detection range. Radars are quite robust to bad weather conditions but give very poor resolution. The typical 2-3° angular resolution (e.g., 2° at 100m cannot distinguish a distance larger than 3.4m) of a radar makes most object detection challenging.

On the other hand, Lidar can compensate for the disadvantages of other sensors, "seeing" in the dark, providing high resolution (e.g., 0.1°) and information not easily affected by the light condition. Unlike ultrasonic sensors, lidar sensors can detect objects at longer distances and in a wider field of view. Lidar systems emit their own light, making them less susceptible to interference from external sources such as sunlight, fog, or rain.

Although existing sensors can handle most issues on the road, lidar provides an additional layer of safety by acting as a backup to other sensors, such as cameras and radar. In situations where other sensors may be compromised or fail, lidar can still provide accurate and reliable data about the environment, allowing the autonomous system to make informed decisions and avoid potential hazards. The requirements of safety redundancy make lidar an important consideration by various Tier 1 companies and OEMs.

In addition, the high costs of lidars are usually associated with "premium design," acting as an excellent marketing tool for vehicles potentially equipped with lidars.

Technology Choices, Challenges and Limitations of Lidar

The automotive industry's high investment in lidar technology has attracted many players to the field. However, lidar is still relatively immature compared to cameras and radars due to its unestablished supply chain, unclear market landscape, and high price point. The technology landscape of lidar is segmented into four areas: measurement process, emitter, beam steering mechanism, and receiver. Furthermore, there are several other factors to consider, such as wavelength choice and optical system selection, which add further complexity to the technology choices of lidar.

Despite the numerous options available for each component in a lidar system, not all technologies have equal opportunities for commercialization. For example, FMCW is typically used with a 1550nm wavelength, while VCSEL may perform better with flash lidar beam steering than EEL, and MEMS have more difficulty combining with FMCW. Even the hardware technology is the result of complicated sub-technology combinations, and software and system solutions must also be considered. The rapid development of different technologies makes the lidar market even more complicated, presenting challenges and limitations that must be overcome to unlock the potential of autonomous vehicles fully.

In addition, there are many challenges to solve for lidar systems, including but not limited to the probability of false detection, performance under adverse weather conditions such as rain, snow, and fog, long-range detection, uniform angular resolution, and point cloud density, modular design for various field of view coverage needs, high cost, automotive grade reliability, manufacturability, ease of calibration and product lifetime.

Market Status and Future Direction of Lidar

As lidar technology continues to evolve, we can expect to see a shift towards diversified functions and customized design under different application scenarios. Passing automotive grade and cost considerations may be the same or even more important than lidar performance.

In addition, lidar technology will likely continue improving in terms of resolution, range, and accuracy, making it even more effective at detecting and navigating complex environments. This will be essential for the continued development of autonomous vehicles and other applications that rely on lidar technology.

For even better lidar performance, the attention may be focused more on transceivers than beam steering systems, as well as software designs. The installation location and cleaning strategies are also discussed for actual adoption. An understanding of the whole supply chain, from materials and components to systems, can assist in better strategic decision-making.