Autonomous Vehicle Progress Report

Porsche acquires stake in vision sensor start-up Aeva

Last week, Porsche, the majority owner of Volkswagen, one of the world’s biggest car-makers, took a minority stake in Aeva, a Silicon Valley start-up that produces sensors for self-driving vehicles.

Based in Mountain View, California, Aeva started developing technology that powers self-driving cars and advanced driver-assistance systems in 2017. Although fully autonomous driving isn’t legal in the US yet, car-makers and technology companies like Alphabet and Apple have been carrying out research and development in this area for years. Aeva believes it will become a major supplier in the future.

According to co-founder Soroush Salehian, Aeva’s technology can detect the velocity, reflectivity and depth of objects that are more than 300 metres away, and each system will cost less than $500 when bought at volume. Car manufacturers can mount the technology wherever they like on their vehicles.

As vehicles navigate roads, they rely on lidar sensors to generate a 3D map of their surroundings and help with their progress — these sensors are the eyes of vehicles. Aeva’s product uses a different technology to other lidar units being tested on roads, which have spinning parts and send out powerful laser bursts. Its sensor has no moving parts and uses a less powerful continuous wave, allowing the company to embed the most important parts onto a chip about the size of a US quarter. The chips can be manufactured in the same factories that produce data-centre networking chips. Current lidar systems can cost tens of thousands of dollars, a sum that car-makers say must come down to a few hundred dollars for autonomous cars to be commercially viable.

The breakthrough by Aeva is expected to dramatically lower the price of a sensor widely considered a bottleneck in the mass production of autonomous cars. The start-up believes it can sell its product for less than $500. Early in 2020, it plans to release a unit that’s half the size of the current sensor, with a field of view that’s twice as wide, and to roll out a smaller, final production version by 2022.

The autonomous vehicle industry has seen intense investment and focus over the past few years from tech companies and automotive players. But it’s still early days for this new technology, which will affect virtually all people in developed countries and disrupt several major industries. Nonetheless, autonomous driving is being developed and tested in highly controlled environments, where the experience and implementation can be very carefully monitored. Truly autonomous driving in which cars can drive themselves in all conditions and don’t even need steering wheels, classified as level 5, is still several years away from being a reality.