Alphabet’s way to stop selling LiDAR autonomous car sensors to other companies

Alphabet’s autonomous unit, Waymo, said on Thursday that it has ended a two-year effort to sell light detection and range sensors (LiDAR) to other companies.

This is a reversal of its previous strategy of selling LiDARs to non-automotive customers to reduce the costs of an important and expensive component of autonomous cars.

“We are closing our commercial LiDAR business while maintaining our focus on developing and deploying our Waymo driver at our Waymo One (signaling) and Waymo Via (delivery) units,” a Waymo spokesperson said in a statement.

The spokesperson, however, said he will continue to build his LiDARs internally.

According to a person familiar with the matter, Waymo is considering in-house technology and external vendors for its next-generation LiDARs.

The decision to stop selling LiDARs comes after CEO John Krafcik and a few other executives left, raising questions about whether Waymo would rethink his strategy after failing to generate significant revenue for more than a decade.

In 2019, Waymo said it would sell one of its three different in-house LiDARs to customers in robotics, agriculture and others, not to rival autonomous auto companies.

“We can scale our standalone technology faster, making each sensor more affordable through economies of scale,” said Simon Verghese, LiDAR team leader, at the time.

It was unclear whether Waymo was able to generate enough revenue to offset the operating and development costs of its LiDAR sales business.

LiDARs use laser pulses to measure distances and render accurate images of the environment around the car. Most autonomous companies, including Waymo, claim that LiDARs are essential to achieving full autonomy. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said companies that rely on expensive sensors are “doomed.”

Waymo in 2018 launched the first commercial autonomous cabs, equipping Chrysler’s minivan with its own autonomous hardware. But it has not yet expanded and extended the technology beyond limited areas in suburban Phoenix, and recently launched public tests around dense San Francisco with a Jaguar electric car and a new set of sensors.

In 2011, Waymo began developing its own set of sensors from scratch, including three types of LiDARs, including short-range LiDARs dubbed the Laser Bear Honeycomb.

But Tim Willis, general manager of the company’s Laser Bear LiDARs, left the company in February and joined LiDAR’s Aeva company, according to his LinkedIn profile.

The Australian Droid + Robot has tested robot prototypes with Waymo’s Honeycomb LiDARs at mines in Australia.

“Everyone knew the risks associated with this venture,” Mat Allan, manager of perception and artificial intelligence at Australia’s Droid + Robot, told Reuters. “It’s a good product. We haven’t found anything that combines price with performance … It’s a shame, although we haven’t been able to continue the journey,” he said.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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