Waymo Develops its Own Advanced 3D Lidar for Self-Driving Vehicles, Will Offer it to Third Parties

Waymo Develops its Own Advanced 3D Lidar for Self-Driving Vehicles, Will Offer it to Third Parties

Author: Eric Walz   

For the past decade, Google's self-driving arm Waymo used off-the-shelf hardware from other manufacturers, including radar and lidar components, to speed up development of its self-driving vehicles. Both radar and lidar a essential components for self-driving vehicles.

However, as Waymo's self-driving software became more advanced, the company began developing and designing its own hardware in-house to better meet its needs beginning in 2011. One of those components is an advanced, 3D lidar system, which Waymo unveiled today for the first time.

In a blog post today, Waymo shared details about its new advanced lidar sensor, which it calls the "Laser Bear Honeycomb." Waymo says its lidar provides best in class performance.

Lidar works by projecting a laser beam(s) on an object, and by calculating the amount of time it takes to bounce off the object and return, the precise distance from the object can be determined.

By using multiple laser beams (typically 64 to 128 lasers) the lidar sensor can render a realistic 3D representation of an object and surrounding environment, known as a lidar "point cloud." When combined with radar and cameras, these point clouds function as the "eyes" of a self-driving car, detecting pedestrians, buildings, and other vehicles.


Lidar is used to render this 3D view of a self-drving vehicle's surroundings. (Photo: Luminar Technologies, Inc.)

The Laser Bear Honeycomb lidar sensor offers a wider field of view. Typical lidar sensors offer a vertical field of view (FOV) of 30 degrees, enough to extend from the roadway to the tops of some trees. However, Waymo designed its lidar to achieve a vertical FOV of 95 degrees and a horizontal FOV of 360 degrees, extending completely around the vehicle.

Other competing lidar sensors generally offer a 90 or 120 degree FOV. In order to provide complete 360 degree coverage around a vehicle, 3 or 4 lidar units are needed, along with an additional software layer for fusing all of the data together. That means one Honeycomb lidar unit can do the job of three or four 3D sensors, which is a more cost effective solution.

Another lidar breakthrough is what Waymo calls "multiple returns per pulse."  When the Honeycomb lidar sends out a pulse of light using Waymo's multiple returns per pulse technology, the lidar doesn't just detect the first object the laser beam touches. Instead, it can detect up to four different objects in each laser beams' line of sight.

For example if this lidar was pointed at a tree, the laser beams will pick up the leaves and branches in addition to the tree's trunk. Waymo says that this technology provides a much more detailed 3D view of the environment, and uncovers objects otherwise might have be missed by standard lidar technology.

In addition, the Honeycomb lidar has a minimum range of zero, meaning it can see objects directly in front of the sensor, the object doesn't need to be a minimum distance away. This enables key capabilities for an autonomous vehicle, such as near object detection and avoidance.

The Honeycomb lidar works in all weather conditions, including full-sun and complete darkness.

The Honeycomb sensor is currently in use on Waymo's fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans, which are being deployed as part of commercial autonomous ride-hailing service called Waymo One. The pilot of the service is already underway in Arizona, with plans to expand to the San Francisco Bay Area and other cities soon.


A Waymo self-driving minivan with a roof mounted lidar unit.

Waymo said it will sell the sensors to other select companies outside of the self-driving car industry,  beginning with robotics, security and agricultural technology, so that these industries can achieve their own technological breakthroughs. However, it does not plan to sell it to rival companies working on self-driving vehicles, although that may change in the future with the rollout of commercial self-driving car hardware.

It's even possible that Waymo might sell or license the technology to automakers in the future.

In a blog post, Waymo wrote that by offering the Honeycomb lidar to partners it helps spur the growth of lidar applications outside of self-driving cars while propelling its own business forward. Waymo also points out that it can scale its autonomous technology much faster with the financial resources it has from being a subsidiary of Google, making each sensor more affordable through economies of scale.

Prior to developing its own proprietary hardware for self-driving vehicles, Waymo's first supplier of lidar was Velodyne, a well known lidar company in Silicon Valley and considered one of the early pioneers in the field. Dozens of automakers and tech startups are testing autonomous vehicles in Silicon Valley, and the Velodyne HD-64 remains a popular choice among tech startups.

Waymo, Uber Lawsuit Centered Around Lidar

The well publicized lawsuit between Waymo and Uber centered around lidar technology. In 2017, Waymo accused Uber of stealing its IP related to lidar to jumpstart it own autonomous driving program and filed a lawsuit.The case stems from the departure of Anthony Levandowski, former head of Google's self-driving car program.

In Jan 2016, Levandowski resigned from Google without notice and started the self-driving trucking company Otto. Uber purchased Otto for a reported $680 million, just nine months after it was founded. Waymo accused Levandowski of illegally downloaded gigabytes of files related to lidar development in the days before his departure and sharing them with Uber.

The case was eventually settled in Feb 2018, with Uber agreeing to pay $245 million to Waymo in the form of equity in the ride-hailing company.

Waymo says its Honeycomb lidar is ready for the commercial market now. Waymo has been testing the sensor on its fleet of self-driving vehicles, logging two million hours of use in real world conditions.

Waymo did not announce any pricing for the Honeycomb lidar, but interested parties can fill out a form on the company's website to request more information.

Eric Walz
Eric Walz
Originally from New Jersey, Eric is an automotive and technology reporter specializing in the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley. Eric has over fifteen years of automotive experience and a B.A. in computer science. These skills, combined with technical writing and news reporting, allows him to fully understand and identify new and innovative technologies in the automotive industry and beyond. He has worked on self-driving cars and as a technical writer, helping people to understand and work with technology. Outside of work, Eric likes to travel to new places, play guitar, and explore the outdoors.
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