Perception from LiDAR sensor has become indispensable for Highly Autonomous Driving (HAD). However, volume production followed by cost reduction of the sensor is still one of the prime challenges faced by the industry. The year 2020 hit by the pandemic has piled more challenges in the way of autonomous driving production. OEMs do not have the revenue to invest into robust R&D of autonomous driving and hence few of the OEMs has announced a delay in their AV launch timelines.
In the interview with Dr. Florian Petit, Co-Founder of Blickfeld, Eva Sharma, Consultant at ACES business segment of M14 Intelligence discussed the Blickfeld’s take on the current situation of autonomous vehicle industry, what the company has to offer and how Blickfeld is solving the problems in the LiDAR space.
Eva: What is Blickfeld’s current position in the automotive industry? How according to you is the demand from the OEMs and Tier-1s?
Florian Petit: Blickfeld is a Tier-2 company recognized for building LiDAR components. We are focused on the core technical components of LiDAR:
The first is a silicon MEMS mirror component, we call the “beam deflection unit”. It is responsible for steering the beam over the scene. This is responsible for the high resolution, the long detection range, and the wide field of view.
The second is an optical component called the Laser Detector Module (LDM), it is the emitter and receiver unit. This special unit is designed similar to automotive cameras. We have adopted a camera manufacturing process; hence we are capable of volume production.
The third component is a control software that controls the MEMS mirror on one side and the data processing and acquisition of our laser detector module on the other side.
Coming towards our capabilities- We are producing these hardware components with our high-volume experience automotive production partners which build both the MEMS mirror as well as the LDM (laser detector module). We build our proprietary control software with all automotive standards in-house. Our prime customers being Tier-1s, we supply this solution to them, and these tier-1s then build modules, integrate it into their systems, and these systems then get integrated into the OEM vehicles.
Also, to give you an overview of our target markets, we are active in 3 main regions, the Asian market, the American market, and the European market. As a Munich, we are closely surrounded by multi-billion-dollar automotive companies including OEMs and Tier-1s, and thereby find ourselves most active in the European market.
Eva: You have debuted your LiDAR product Cube Range in CES 2020 and has also been qualified as top pick for real time detection of moving object. So how does this product stand out in the market?
Florian: The Cube Range is designed especially for long-range applications. Generally speaking, we are active in both the industrial and automotive markets. In the industrial sector, we supply our products for applications like parameter security, logistics, and geoinformation systems. In the automotive sector, they are used for urban mobility applications such as parking spot detection and traffic flow monitoring, as well as high-volume retail cars.
Our technology offers various distinctive features:
- Our patented MEMS mirrors have dimensions of more than 10 millimeters diameter, capable of detecting even weakly reflecting objects at a distance of more than 180 meters
- Our coaxial setup minimizes background light and produces a remarkably high signal-to-noise ratio, which benefits the range
- The product Cube offers a wide FOV of the car giving 360-degree coverage with 4 to 6 Cubes
- The long detection range of 250 meters
- They are compact in size and low in energy consumption, consuming each below 10 W typically and about 15 W max
- They are long-range, feature a wide FOV, and a high frame rate, and produce high definition point clouds
Eva: Do you see any future for mechanical scanning LiDARs? Which LiDAR technology you think is sustainable for autonomous driving? Or will it be a mix of mechanical and non-mechanical LiDARs?
Florian: The main requirements from the automotive industry are high quality sensing and high-volume production. The question is how you can we achieve both.
If we look at mechanical LiDARs, there are no state-of-the-art production technologies available. Whereas, for example, our optical components are produced in a fashion similar to automotive cameras. So, we can adopt an automotive camera production line to build some of our components. And this technology is easily relatable to the customers which gives us an advantage over other companies. For instance, our customers know how camera production lines look like. They have sold millions of cameras in automotive applications and they understand how they are produced, they understand the quality requirements of the plant, how they are set-up, what the cost structure is, etc. This creates a lot of value and trust for the customers because they can use production lines and production types they know well.
It is hard to say whether mechanical LiDARs are here to stay, but there are big challenges for mechanically spinning lidars in terms of mass production, which affect the cost of these LiDARs as well.
Eva: What is your target pricing for automotive market?
Florian: For industrial applications, our devices cost a few thousand Euros, of course, that is heavily dependent on the volume. For the automotive sector, it is a quite different story. There we envision lower three-digit prices - a few hundred Euros for high volumes in the coming years.
Eva: How soon can we see the Blickfeld’s automotive LiDARs in the mass production?
Florian: Automotive products always take a few years until they are in the market. Say typically you have such projects running for 4 to 6 years. We are at the beginning of this cycle now. I would say we will have serial production in high volume with our customers in the near future. For our industrial products, high volume production is ramping up today; we have a production line set-up for our Cube products where we are producing the product in high volumes.
Eva: Does Blickfeld works with commercial vehicle players?
Florian: Yes, of course. They have slightly different requirements in terms of mounting, sensor positioning, sensor suite, but not too much difference in specifications. A major difference is also that CVs have higher product lifetime requirements. We do not see too much difference between passenger vehicles and commercial vehicles in terms of sensing requirements.
For example, commercial vehicles like trucks and trailers, travel at relatively slow speeds say 100-110 km/hour, so, there is no special requirement for the ultralong range sensing there; however, they have longer brake paths, which increases the range requirement. Hence, passenger cars and commercial vehicles have the same range requirements.
Eva: The Japanese lighting company KOITO MANUFACTURING CO., LTD., is one of your partners in automotive space and planning to integrate your LiDARs in the car headlamps. Could you help us understand more about your partnerships and collaborations in the industry?
Florian: We have several other partners that we cannot release at this point. What we can release is the list of our investors from the automotive industry for our series A funding- including FLUXUNIT- OSRAM Ventures which is the investment arm of Osram, and Continental AG.
Eva: How Blickfeld is currently affected with the global COVID pandemic situation? How are you tackling with this situation and what according to you is the recovery time for automotive industry to get streamline again?
Florian: Honestly, we are lucky to have not been affected too much by COVID. The reason being that our projects are long-term in character and it will take a few years until we are in production. We decided not to cut back or do short time or part-time work or anything like this, which would slow us down, but rather went full throttle throughout COVID. We have taken many measures regarding social distancing, cleanliness, and other requirements fully complying with the WHO guidelines; however, we did not cut back on any development capabilities.
We have even welcomed more than 20 new employees to Blickfeld in the last four months. Also, we have received the series A investment in March, which was exactly the right time.