The trial of the decade is about to transpire in San Francisco, and the fight is already getting ugly.
Self-driving giants Waymo and Uber are set to square off this October in a case involving enough backstabbing, power moves, and confidential information theft to fill a new fall drama’s entire season. But the subject at the epicenter of it all would barely raise eyebrows, let alone rise ratings.
LiDAR, short for “light detection and ranging,” is the unsuspecting technology at the heart of Silicon Valley’s biggest case—and integral to the spread of self-driving vehicles.
In fact, their proliferation may well depend on it.
The system allows the cars to “see” by helping them cultivate a 3D perception of the world in real time. Without it, the vehicles wouldn’t just be driverless—they’d be driving blind.
Waymo—the autonomous vehicle division spun off by Google—is alleging former employee Anthony Levandowski stole the secret blueprints for Waymo’s LiDAR system shortly before leaving the company to start his own self-driving venture, Otto, which was conspicuously purchased by Uber just 8 months later.
But the information Levandowski allegedly took with him was worth slightly more than a typical severance package.
Waymo is seeking $2.6 billion in damages for the 14,000 files it says Levandowski stole.
The true value of the technology, however, is much closer to priceless, said Austin Russell, founder and CEO of LiDAR producer Luminar Technologies.
“[C]ompanies like that, they don't want to have to build their own type of LiDAR platform,” he recently told Marketplace Tech. “It's something they've just frankly had to do for a couple of reasons. One is that you straight up can't buy these sensors out there in any reasonable quantity. Actually, the number of autonomous vehicles on the road are literally just limited to the number of LiDAR sensors that can be produced.”
It seems then that the Waymo-Uber face-off is less a fight over proprietary rights than one of corporate survival.
Still—could the rise or fall of a self-driving empire truly rest on the back of such a small piece of technology?
What, Exactly, Are We Looking At?
The idea of self-driving cars has an intrinsically futuristic feel. In many ways, they seem just shy of the flying cars nearly every generation since the invention of the automobile has dreamed of one day piloting.
But LiDAR, the visualization system it all hinges on, has been around for a long time. In fact, it finds its roots in an ancient form of technology: sonar.
Bats, dolphins, and other animals have been using sonar to get around for nearly 50 million years. These creatures utilize sound waves to paint an approximate picture of the world, emitting cries and judging the distance and shape of other objects around them by how the noises bounce back.
This natural navigation system is so effective, it was adopted by the military, which built echolocation sensors into submarines to help the ships find their way through deep, dark waters. (Incidentally, sound travels farther through water than radio or light waves.)
Similarly, radar—which the military unveiled in World War II, shortly after it began using sonar—relies on vibrations to gain its view of the world, through reading radio waves.
The technology is a step up from sonar, as radio signals are capable of carrying additional data back, including the speed and direction objects are traveling. Outside of water, they can also relay information farther than sound waves—from a distance of up to 200 meters.
LiDAR is the most sophisticated take yet on the idea. It utilizes light waves to achieve the same objective as sonar and radar but can glean an accurate reading of the landscape from even further away.
Created in the 1960s, the technology—which beams out light waves through lasers—was used to chart a map of the moon during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971. Lately, it’s been directing our self-driving cars, often residing inside the large, spinning sensors mounted to the top of the vehicles.
The vantage point—and rotation—allows the technology to take in 360-degree views, constructing a comprehensive, 3D image of the car’s surroundings. (How the autos know how to respond to those surroundings, however, is another story entirely.)
And the battery of cameras, GPS, and even radar systems employed by the driverless vehicles wouldn’t quite work as well without the inclusion of LiDAR.
It might be the most important thing we’ll never see—but our cars will never see without it.
Why Does It Matter?
It may seem odd for two of the world’s most powerful corporations to bicker over such old technology in such a behemoth court battle, but the advancement of LiDAR has never been more important.
As vehicles become savvier drivers, they’ll increasingly rely upon images cultivated by the technology—which will need to see farther, and with higher resolution, in order to keep the concept of driverless cars moving forward. (Among top carmakers, Tesla alone rejects this idea, believing cameras and radar are enough to keep the vehicles safely in the know.)
And when it comes to the accuracy of those images, nothing short of perfect will do, said Russell, of Luminar.
“This is something that, you know, having 99 percent object detection accuracy is completely unacceptable because you can’t miss one out of every hundred people or one out of every hundred cars,” he said in the Marketplace interview.
The LiDAR plans could also be precious to Waymo as the technology is found in short supply elsewhere, even as its demand has skyrocketed with the self-driving revolution.
And building it is expensive. Producing just one LiDAR sensor is so potentially pricey that Waymo actually heralded the creation of a sensor that could be developed for just $7,500—which it said represented a 90% reduction in price. (Many self-driving prototypes use several of the sensors.)
Any advancements it had made on its LiDAR sensors then (and tracked in the lifted blueprints), could have proven exceptionally lucrative for the company, with the ultimate goal being mass production of the technology—and even lower costs to build it.
It seems then that Waymo is fighting for the right to see its way clearly to the 2021 deadline most carmakers have pegged for the release of their self-driving models. Any attempt to do so without the light-detecting systems would truly be a shot in the dark.