What it really costs to turn a car into a self-driving vehicle

Getting There
Getting There

Amid a race to market, the promoters who say a self-driving future is just around the corner rarely disclose one important thing—the price of outfitting an autonomous car. That extra cost, according to one of the few experts prepared to discuss the subject openly: about $250,000 per vehicle.

When you ask carmakers and industry researchers the cost of self-driving equipment, they almost always say around $8,000-$10,000. Even if that range were accurate, it could be too high for the mass market—a lot of motorists would probably recoil at paying an added 33% to make their $25,000 car more or less self-driving.

But it turns out that the consensus cost estimate is aspirational. This is according to Oliver Cameron, who runs the self-driving car team at Udacity, the Silicon Valley technology training startup founded by Sebastian Thrun, lead developer of Google’s pioneering self-driving car. Udacity has become intimately familiar with the cost of autonomous equipment as the company has built its own self-driving car as part of an engineer-training course, Cameron said.

LIDAR. (Velodyne)

For starters, there is LIDAR, the highly sensitive laser sensor that is the core of almost all autonomous vehicles. You would install the LIDAR model in the photo to the right—the top-of-the-line HDL-64E, made by Velodyne—on top of the car for a complete, 360-degree field of view. That’s about $85,000, Cameron said.

Next, among other costs, there likely would be four smaller LIDAR devices elsewhere on the car. At $8,000 each, they add $32,000 more. Radar is another $10,000, plus a few cameras, for $6,000. For times when GPS is blocked—say, by a tunnel—you’ll need an inertial measurement unit, which is $4,000. Then there is a PC, a hard drive, a graphics card and other hardware, adding another $5,000 or so.

Now we come to the car itself. Uber, for example, is driving around a $50,000 Volvo XC90. “So you are looking at around $300,000 all-in,” Cameron said.

Waymo, the Google spin-off, claims it has cut the cost of an experimental version of the high-end LIDAR to around $7,500. It did not release details. And Tesla, which uses only radar and not LIDAR, says its self-driving equipment is $8,000.

Cosmin Laslau, an analyst with Lux Research, scoffed at the high Udacity estimate. “Given how early-stage these efforts are, a frantic, money-is-no-object approach seems to be pervasive, which could indeed lead to some very high numbers. However, these are probably less indicative of the actual hardware and more about one-off engineering and R&D costs,” Laslau said.

Cameron also thinks the cost will come down. So much effort is going into perfecting cameras, he said, that “maybe we won’t need LIDAR at all.” But the industry is not there yet.

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