To advance in self-driving, China depends on US technology

Ready to hit the road.
Ready to hit the road.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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China has moved in recent months to allow autonomous car tests on city roads, and has said it hopes that smart cars will make up half of new cars on the road by 2020. That’s a goal that, for now, requires US and German technology.

Laser-radar sensor technology, or lidar, is what allows an autonomous car to “see” what’s around it, but Chinese domestic lidar manufacturers are still struggling to match US technology, according to Chinese newspaper Science Daily (link in Chinese) on Tuesday (May 9). As a result, many self-driving car companies need to import foreign lidars, and many of them rely on a single company: California-based Velodyne.

Baidu, China’s search giant, used Velodnye’s lidar to conduct a road test in China in early 2016, and is also an investor in the company., a self-driving startup in the southern city of Guangzhou, is also using Velodyne’s lidar to test cars. Velodyne has previously said that 85% of participants in a 2015 autonomous vehicle competition in China were using its lidars.

Usually mounted on top of the car, the lidar continuously sends out laser beams. By measuring the time it takes the light to bounce back from nearby objects, it produces a 360-degree real-time map, which the car’s computer uses to make predictions and decisions.  Compared to radar, lidar’s laser vision is better at capturing arms and legs, which makes it better at helping the car handle pedestrians. Every serious player in the self-driving race sees laser vision as an indispensable ingredient for a fully autonomous car, noted technology news blog Wired. (Elon Musk, though, has argued that lidar isn’t necessary, and is instead banking on cameras.)

China has long said it want to rely more on indigenous technology, and as tensions with the US over tech ratchet up, it’s putting more money into that. Right now China now only make lidars capable of emitting 40 laser beams—far from the 128 laser beams rolled out by Velodyne late last year. More beams require chips with higher processing power to better project and receive signals, and domestic lidar makers also often have to source these from overseas.

A company spokesperson for Chinese lidar maker RoboSense told Quartz that the Shenzhen-based firm turns for part of its chip supplies to Germany, as well as other countries. The company says it has been providing lidars emitting 16 to 32 laser beams to self-driving firms in China, but didn’t provide names.

The high cost of manufacturing top-end lidars, and the relatively long time it takes to test the technology to meet safety regulations, are another obstacle. They’re why top lidars are still pretty expensive, although Velodyne cut its 16-beam lidar, its most popular sensor, to $4,000 this year. Experts say prices need to be a tenth of that for widespread adoption of self-driving cars.

Still, figuring out how to mass produce a high-end tech product cheaply is a problem that China’s really good at cracking. And as China’s pushes local manufacture and sourcing, it might not be surprising to see lidar become less of a niche industry in the future—perhaps with a little bit more help from foreign firms.