The dispute over lidar technology is splitting a whole industry

San FranciscoFor some, it is a lifesaving technology, for others it is just superfluous nonsense. For Elon Musk, for example, for him Lidar (Light Detection And Ranging) is nothing more than an expensive and useless maldevelopment, "futile effort". Who uses the devices that emit pulsating laser beams and calculate from the reflections 3D images of the environment, the head of the car maker Tesla lectured in April in front of analysts, was "doomed".

Lidar starts where other technologies like cameras or radars have problems: it brings depth and distance into otherwise two-dimensional images and can measure velocities. According to Musk, Google's daughter Waymo, Ford, General Motors (GM) or Amazon-financed startup Aurora are doomed to die. According to the risk capital database CBInsights, a good 1.2 billion dollars have been invested in various lidar start-ups.

For Musk, this is technology from the past. In a world of machine learning and artificial intelligence, in his opinion, it would be possible to extract and analyze all the necessary information from camera images and radar information, and calculate the environment accurately enough in real time to safely drive self-driving cars from one place to another move. Tesla wants to have developed its own super-computer chip, which should leave even the autonomous computer systems of the chip specialist Nvidia far behind. Nvidia denies that.

Lidar systems can be recognized on a knobbly turret on the car roof and they cost a few thousand dollars. Lidar advocates, however, emphasize that prices would fall sharply when autonomous cars are in mass production.

Experts like Sanjay Sood point out that self-driving cars can not use enough systems to ensure safety. Sood leads the development of card systems at map specialist Here. "You could also build a car without airbags and anti-lock brakes. But probably nobody would buy it, "he summarizes his view to CNN.

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If cameras and radars provide conflicting information, the Lidar could be the technology that resolves the stalemate of the sensors. In the worst case, camera and radar systems do not capture important information at all: two spectacular Tesla accidents right Musk doubters: In both cases, a Tesla had raced completely unchecked under truck trailers who had made a turning maneuver in front of the vehicles. They had simply not been detected by radar and cameras. The question is whether she would have seen a lidar in time and warned.

In another accident involving an Uber vehicle, a pedestrian who wanted to cross the street at night and was hit head-on by the car had been killed. The US Department of Road Safety's preliminary report notes that the mounted Lidar had detected an object. But the emergency brake system had not been triggered.

Louay Eldada, head of Quanenergy Systems, a Lidar start-up from Silicon Valley, states dramatically: "A self-driving car with only radar and cameras is irresponsible," he told online market service Marketwatch. He meant not only Tesla, but also Nissan. The car maker had also announced that it wanted to get along without Lidar in the future. Quanenergy develops cost-effective lidar solutions and has so far raised $ 180 million in venture capital.

So the question remains, how Musk wants to do it faster with cheaper and simpler technology to send one million self-propelled robot taxis without safety drivers ("Level 5 cars") to the streets than anyone else who works with more expensive and more security systems , That's what Musk also announced in April to analysts. And already for 2020.

At any rate, Chris Urmson, head of the technology supplier Aurora, does not let himself be confused in his beliefs. Urmson, who has led Google's activities in the sector for years, maintains, "Lidar is critical to the development of the safest and most reliable self-propelled systems."

Elon Musk sees it completely differently. But could he ever go back? Not without barking at all the Tesla customers he has promised that their cars are only getting more valuable and better thanks to software and computer retrofitting. All this would be waste if a new generation of Tesla would put on Lidar revolving towers.

Is autonomous driving a utopia?

More: Autonomous cars need exact maps. With the joint venture Here – Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen are involved – wants the German car industry Google to announce the fight.

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