While they exist in varying degrees, there are really only two fundamental problems that a tech product can have: it doesn't work or it can't be acquired.
Every new piece of technology that gets released claims to solve some problem, but if it doesn't do that or can't be purchased, it's a non-starter.
For the Lidar sensors that underpin the majority of self-driving cars right now, both issues exist to a degree. Lidar technology does work, but some argue it is not sophisticated enough to be reliable for vehicles traveling at highway speeds.
And while Lidar sensors can be purchased, they come at a very steep price.
The cost is so high that many industry insiders say that autonomous vehicles won't become a viable mobility option until the price comes down significantly. Talk of how to make Lidar better and cheaper dominates the self-driving car news cycle.
Where there's a widely acknowledged problem, there are sure to be a wide swath of companies looking to solve it, and profit from it.
One of those is TetraVue, a startup based in Vista, Calif. TetraVue is focusing its efforts on a form of Lidar, known as flash Lidar, that would be new to the consumer AV industry. The traditional Lidar sensors that power most of the self-driving cars of today operate by moving and sending out millions of laser pulses per second. Flash Lidar sensors, on the other hand, take a "snapshot" of a vehicle's surroundings in such a way that a 2D image is transformed into a 3D one and still delivers range information.
Flash lidar is essentially a hybrid of standard Lidar sensors and video cameras. The data from a flash Lidar provides an autonomous operating system with a three-dimensional, high-resolution feed of its surroundings. Tetravue CEO Hal Zarem told IEEE Spectrum that he thinks his company can replace traditional Lidars and reduce the role of radar and cameras.
Of course, all this means little without knowing how much a flash Lidar will cost, and TetraVue has yet to release any pricing information. Flash Lidars are not new. They have been used for military applications for quite some time. In those situations, money is no object. Consumer applications are a different story. But Zarem says the TetraVue flash Lidar sensors will be affordable compared with traditional, high-end Lidars.
"In mass production, we think we can get to the cost points the industry requires, on the order of a few hundred dollars," Zarem told IEEE Spectrum. For comparison, the Velodyne HDL-64 Lidar, which is as close to an industry standard as there is right now, retails for around $70,000, and a newer model, with twice the lasers has already been announced.
Earlier this year, TetraVue announced a $10 million Series A round of fundraising led by Robert Bosch Venture Capital and Nautilus Venture Partners. The money was raised to further develop its flash Lidar. The device is apparently far enough along that TetraVue announced that it would debut the product at the CES 2018 trade show in Las Vegas in January.
In its announcement, TetraVue wasn't shy about the new product's potential.
"This new camera technology is poised to transform markets including autonomous vehicles, machine vision, factory automation and the entertainment industry," according to TetraVue.