LiDAR device manufacturer Velodyne on August 13 filed patent infringement complaints with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California claiming Chinese companies Suteng Innovation Technology (aka RoboSense) and Hesai willfully copied its technology.
LiDAR — light detection and ranging scanning — is a form of remote sensing technology that sends out laser pulses, which bounce off objects in front of it, helping the instrument to measure the size and distance of objects for creating a three-dimensional model of the environment. It resembles radar or sonar technology but uses light pulses instead of radio or sound waves.
Within the autonomous driving circle, the use of LiDAR has been a topic of debate. Companies like Google’s Waymo and GE’s Cruise Automation continue betting big on LiDAR, while Tesla founder Elon Musk has called the technology “a fool’s errand.”
Musk’s dismissal of the technology has its roots in the return on interest of the financing poured into LiDAR’s development and subsequent manufacturing. Velodyne, arguably the leader of LiDAR technology for vehicles, has a product line that is very expensive.
A Velodyne 64-channel LiDAR unit costs $85,000. This means that even if the technology works, it might not be a solution that could be commercially viable — unless there are massive economies of scale and advancements in technology that bring the overall costs down.
Even if the prices come down, Musk points to a fundamental difference in the way LiDAR works to manoeuvre an autonomous vehicle versus a mix of cameras, radar, GPS, maps and ultrasonic sensors that a Tesla uses to visualize its driving environment.
The type of data that a LiDAR device collects makes it hard for the system to perceive the differences between various objects, which in extension is a hassle for an autonomous vehicle to prioritize and understand specific obstacles or objects in its driving environment. Andrej Karparthy, senior director of artificial intelligence at Tesla, explained that a LiDAR system would have a hard time deciphering between a plastic bag and a rubber tire.
However, real-life cameras on a vehicle can capture images that can be trained on machine learning algorithms, which over time can help understand environments more precisely. Nonetheless, a LiDAR system is comprehensive, as it can see through challenging weather conditions like fog and snow, making it an attractive choice for companies like Waymo and Cruise Automation.
Velodyne’s patented 3D LiDAR technology was developed in 2011 by company founder David Hall. Specifically, Hall patented a procedure that lets vehicles visualize objects in 3D.
Velodyne believes both RoboSense and Hesai violated its patent and were actively promoting “the sale, use and importation of its infringing rotating 3D LiDAR devices in marketing materials, technical specifications, data sheets, webpages on its website, press releases and user manuals.”
However, the court’s jurisdiction will only extend to the products sold by these Chinese companies in the United States.