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Airbus taps Luminar to test how lidar could be used to make flying safer and autonomous

By Kirsten Korosec

Luminar Technologies is expanding its lidar business beyond automotive and into aviation through a partnership with Airbus. The collaboration with the French aerospace giant, which was announced Monday morning, marks the latest in a string of partnership announcements between Luminar and companies like Daimler, Volvo and Mobileye. Until now, these have exclusively focused on applying its light detection and ranging radar to automated vehicles on the ground — not in the skies.

The partnership won’t bring lidar into commercial aircraft. Unlike Luminar’s deal with Daimler, Mobileye and Volvo this is not a production contract. Instead, the partnership is with Airbus’ UpNext subsidiary, which is focused on developing and eventually applying new technological breakthroughs to aviation. The effort will be folded into Airbus Flightlab, an ecosystem that offers access to flight test platforms across Airbus’ business lines, including commercial aircraft, helicopters, defense and space. Luminar and Airbus will develop and test how lidar can be used to enhance sensing, perception and system-level capabilities to ultimately enable safe, autonomous flight, the companies said.

“We’re able to directly re-apply what we’ve accomplished for the automotive industry into aviation, an established nearly $1 trillion industry,” Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell said in a statement Monday. “We believe that automation and safety enhancements will transform how we move across all modes of transport as we take our technology from roads to the skies. We look forward to accelerating our shared vision to define the future of flying.”

Lidar, which measures distance using laser light to generate a highly accurate 3D map of the world, is considered by most in the autonomous vehicle industry critical to commercial deployment. Automakers have also begun to view lidar as an important sensor to be used to expand the capabilities and safety of advanced driver assistance systems in new cars, trucks and SUVs available to consumers.

Airbus is interested in how Luminar’s lidar and perception stack can be used to automatically detect obstacles, a key step toward autonomous operation of aircraft such as urban air mobility vehicles. The companies said the sensor also has the potential to “substantially improve the safety of existing aircraft applications.”

Increasing helicopter safety is one of Airbus’ missions. The company said Monday it will introduce a number of new features to its helicopter Flightlab through a project code-named Vertex. These technologies, which include lidar and other sensors coupled with software for obstacle detection, fly-by-wire for enhanced auto-pilot and a touchscreen and head-worn display for inflight monitoring and control, aim to reduce helicopter pilot workload and increase safety. Airbus said that when combined, the system will be able to manage navigation and route preparation, automatic take-off and landing, as well as following a predefined flight path. The incremental integration of these technologies onto the helicopter Flightlab has begun ahead of a complete demonstration in 2023. Airbus said its Urban Air Mobility project will also benefit from this technology as a step toward autonomous flight.

Luminar, which burst onto the autonomous vehicle scene in April 2017 after operating for years in secrecy, became a publicly traded company in late 2020. The company announced in February that it would work with Volvo Cars to develop and eventually sell to other automakers an automated driving system for highways. The partnership, which is between Luminar and Volvo’s self-driving software subsidiary Zenseact, builds upon an existing relationship with Volvo. The two companies are combining their tech to create what Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell described as a “holistic autonomous vehicle stack” made for production vehicles. Volvo will be the first customer. Russell and Zenseact CEO Ödgärd Andersson said at the time that they plan to also offer this system to other automakers.

Last year, ahead of its public debut, Luminar also locked in a supplier deal to furnish Intel subsidiary Mobileye with lidar for its fleet of autonomous vehicles. Under that contract, Luminar’s lidar will be part of Mobileye’s first-generation fleet of driverless vehicles, which are being piloted in Dubai, Tel Aviv, Paris, China and Daegu City, South Korea.

 

China’s Xpeng in the race to automate EVs with lidar

By Rita Liao

Elon Musk famously said any company relying on lidar is “doomed.” Tesla instead believes automated driving functions are built on visual recognition and is even working to remove the radar. China’s Xpeng begs to differ.

Founded in 2014, Xpeng is one of China’s most celebrated electric vehicle startups and went public when it was just six years old. Like Tesla, Xpeng sees automation as an integral part of its strategy; unlike the American giant, Xpeng uses a combination of radar, cameras, high-precision maps powered by Alibaba, localization systems developed in-house, and most recently, lidar to detect and predict road conditions.

“Lidar will provide the 3D drivable space and precise depth estimation to small moving obstacles even like kids and pets, and obviously, other pedestrians and the motorbikes which are a nightmare for anybody who’s working on driving,” Xinzhou Wu, who oversees Xpeng’s autonomous driving R&D center, said in an interview with TechCrunch.

“On top of that, we have the usual radar which gives you location and speed. Then you have the camera which has very rich, basic semantic information.”

Xpeng is adding lidar to its mass-produced EV model P5, which will begin delivering in the second half of this year. The car, a family sedan, will later be able to drive from point A to B based on a navigation route set by the driver on highways and certain urban roads in China that are covered by Alibaba’s maps. An older model without lidar already enables assisted driving on highways.

The system, called Navigation Guided Pilot, is benchmarked against Tesla’s Navigate On Autopilot, said Wu. It can, for example, automatically change lanes, enter or exit ramps, overtake other vehicles, and maneuver another car’s sudden cut-in, a common sight in China’s complex road conditions.

“The city is super hard compared to the highway but with lidar and precise perception capability, we will have essentially three layers of redundancy for sensing,” said Wu.

By definition, NGP is an advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) as drivers still need to keep their hands on the wheel and take control at any time (Chinese laws don’t allow drivers to be hands-off on the road). The carmaker’s ambition is to remove the driver, that is, reach Level 4 autonomy two to four years from now, but real-life implementation will hinge on regulations, said Wu.

“But I’m not worried about that too much. I understand the Chinese government is actually the most flexible in terms of technology regulation.”

The lidar camp

Musk’s disdain for lidar stems from the high costs of the remote sensing method that uses lasers. In the early days, a lidar unit spinning on top of a robotaxi could cost as much as $100,000, said Wu.

“Right now, [the cost] is at least two orders low,” said Wu. After 13 years with Qualcomm in the U.S., Wu joined Xpeng in late 2018 to work on automating the company’s electric cars. He currently leads a core autonomous driving R&D team of 500 staff and said the force will double in headcount by the end of this year.

“Our next vehicle is targeting the economy class. I would say it’s mid-range in terms of price,” he said, referring to the firm’s new lidar-powered sedan.

The lidar sensors powering Xpeng come from Livox, a firm touting more affordable lidar and an affiliate of DJI, the Shenzhen-based drone giant. Xpeng’s headquarters is in the adjacent city of Guangzhou about 1.5 hours’ drive away.

Xpeng isn’t the only one embracing lidar. Nio, a Chinese rival to Xpeng targeting a more premium market, unveiled a lidar-powered car in January but the model won’t start production until 2022. Arcfox, a new EV brand of Chinese state-owned carmaker BAIC, recently said it would be launching an electric car equipped with Huawei’s lidar.

Musk recently hinted that Tesla may remove radar from production outright as it inches closer to pure vision based on camera and machine learning. The billionaire founder isn’t particularly a fan of Xpeng, which he alleged owned a copy of Tesla’s old source code.

In 2019, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Cao Guangzhi alleging that the former Tesla engineer stole trade secrets and brought them to Xpeng. XPeng has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Cao no longer works at Xpeng.

Supply challenges

While Livox claims to be an independent entity “incubated” by DJI, a source told TechCrunch previously that it is just a “team within DJI” positioned as a separate company. The intention to distance from DJI comes as no one’s surprise as the drone maker is on the U.S. government’s Entity List, which has cut key suppliers off from a multitude of Chinese tech firms including Huawei.

Other critical parts that Xpeng uses include NVIDIA’s Xavier system-on-the-chip computing platform and Bosch’s iBooster brake system. Globally, the ongoing semiconductor shortage is pushing auto executives to ponder over future scenarios where self-driving cars become even more dependent on chips.

Xpeng is well aware of supply chain risks. “Basically, safety is very important,” said Wu. “It’s more than the tension between countries around the world right now. Covid-19 is also creating a lot of issues for some of the suppliers, so having redundancy in the suppliers is some strategy we are looking very closely at.”

Taking on robotaxis

Xpeng could have easily tapped the flurry of autonomous driving solution providers in China, including Pony.ai and WeRide in its backyard Guangzhou. Instead, Xpeng becomes their competitor, working on automation in-house and pledges to outrival the artificial intelligence startups.

“The availability of massive computing for cars at affordable costs and the fast dropping price of lidar is making the two camps really the same,” Wu said of the dynamics between EV makers and robotaxi startups.

“[The robotaxi companies] have to work very hard to find a path to a mass-production vehicle. If they don’t do that, two years from now, they will find the technology is already available in mass production and their value become will become much less than today’s,” he added.

“We know how to mass-produce a technology up to the safety requirement and the quarantine required of the auto industry. This is a super high bar for anybody wanting to survive.”

Xpeng has no plans of going visual-only. Options of automotive technologies like lidar are becoming cheaper and more abundant, so “why do we have to bind our hands right now and say camera only?” Wu asked.

“We have a lot of respect for Elon and his company. We wish them all the best. But we will, as Xiaopeng [founder of Xpeng] said in one of his famous speeches, compete in China and hopefully in the rest of the world as well with different technologies.”

5G, coupled with cloud computing and cabin intelligence, will accelerate Xpeng’s path to achieve full automation, though Wu couldn’t share much detail on how 5G is used. When unmanned driving is viable, Xpeng will explore “a lot of exciting features” that go into a car when the driver’s hands are freed. Xpeng’s electric SUV is already available in Norway, and the company is looking to further expand globally.

Aeye becomes latest lidar company to go public via SPAC

By Kirsten Korosec

Aeye, a lidar startup that developed its technology for use in autonomous vehicles as well as to support advanced driver assistance systems in passenger cars, is going public through a merger with CF Finance Acquisition Corp. III that will value the company at $2 billion.

The agreement marks the latest lidar company to turn to so-called blank check companies or SPACs in lieu of a traditional IPO process. Velodyne Lidar kicked off the trend last summer when it announced that it planned to go public through a merger with special purpose acquisition company Graf Industrial Corp., with a market value of $1.8 billion. Others soon followed, including Luminar, Aeva, Ouster and Innoviz.

Under this deal, Aeye said it was able to raise $225 million in private investment in public equity, or PIPE, from institutional and strategic investors that includes, GM Ventures, Subaru-SBI, Intel Capital, Hella Ventures, Taiwania Capital. Other undisclosed investors also participated. Through the transaction, Aeye will have about $455 million in cash on its balance sheet, proceeds that include $230 million in trust from CF Finance Acquisition Corp. III, a SPAC sponsored by Cantor Fitzgerald.

Lidar, light detection and ranging radar, measures distance using laser light to generate a highly accurate 3D map of the world around the car. The sensor is considered by many in the emerging automated driving industry as a critical and necessary tool. Velodyne long dominated the lidar industry and supplied most AV developers with its products. Dozens of startups have popped up in the past several years aiming to carve away market share from Velodyne, each one pitching its own variation on the technology and business approach.

In the past three years, lidar companies have tweaked their business models as the timeline to commercialize autonomous vehicles dragged on. Startups began to emphasize their perception software or pitched to automakers that the sensors could — and should — be applied to passenger vehicles to provide redundancy and push the capabilities of driver assistance systems.

AEye is one of several lidar companies that have expanded its focus beyond autonomous vehicles. The company said the capital raised by going public will be used to scale the company in key markets. Aeye’s pitch is that the company’s lidar technology along with its partnerships with Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers like Continental makes it well positioned to scale and to be adopted by major automakers. Aeye’s lidar sensor scans the surroundings and then, with help from its perception software, identifies and focuses on relevant objects.

Automotive, specifically to support ADAS in passenger vehicles and in the long-term within autonomous vehicles, is Aeye’s foundational market. But the company sees wider industrial and mobility applications in mining, trucking, traffic systems, aviation and drones.

“At the right price and reliability, we believe lidar will eventually be in everything that has a camera today,” CEO Blair LaCorte said during an investor presentation. “With expectations for broad adoption of lidar for consumer and industrial applications, we forecast a total addressable market of $42 billion by 2030.”

Aeye is at the earliest stages of that total addressable market. The company said it expects to generate $4 million in revenue in 2021 and a net loss (EBITDA) of $59 million. Aeye said commercial production of its sensors are expected in the fourth quarter of 2021, which will help increase revenue to a forecast $13 million in 2022. By 2024, Aeye forecasts $175 million in revenue and says it will be positive EBITDA by the second half of the year.

The combined company will be called AEye Holdings Inc. and is expected to be publicly listed on Nasdaq. The transaction is expected to close in the second quarter of 2021. The management team, which includes Blair LaCorte as CEO, founder Luis Dussan as CTO and Bob Brown as CFO, will remain.

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