Apple Lidar: Designed In California, Built…Somewhere

CNBC reports that Apple is in discussions with “at least four companies as possible suppliers for next-generation lidar sensors in self-driving cars.”

The report also suggests that, “The iPhone maker is setting a high bar with demands for a ‘revolutionary design.’…In addition to evaluating potential outside suppliers, Apple is believed to have its own internal lidar sensor under development.”

Waymo managed to pull off this trick with its Laser Bear Honeycomb lidar, designed in-house and the subject of pretty intense litigation with Uber.

If anything, Apple’s hardware design strengths should make this an even easier task for Apple than for Waymo, so it seems totally plausible Apple could pull this off.

The question is: to what end?

I know very little about why Waymo started designing its own lidar, but I know they started building self-driving cars with the Velodyne HDL-64 “chicken bucket” model.

My guess is that Google began developing their own lidar several years ago not because they needed a much better sensor, but rather because they couldn’t get enough sensors of any type.

Several years ago, when Google would have begun developing its lidar program, Velodyne was one of the only lidar manufacturers in the world. And even Velodyne was severely constrained in the number of units it could produce. There was a period a few years ago when the waiting list to buy a Velodyne lidar unit was months long.

In that world, it would have made a lot of sense for Google to begin developing its own lidar program. That would’ve reduced on possible bottleneck for building self-driving cars at scale.

Fast-forward to 2019. Velodyne has taken massive investment capital to build lidar factories, and there are upwards of sixty lidar companies (mostly startups) developing sensors. Today, there isn’t the same need or urgency to develop custom lidar units. In fact, all of those lidar startups are basically doing that on their own.

So it’s not totally clear to me what Apple would gain from creating their own lidar program.

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