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The $75,000 problem for self-driving cars is going away

LIDAR sensors, once prohibitively expensive, have rapidly dropped in price. (Stephen Lam/Reuters)

To many, self-driving cars sound like a wonderful thing. Roads get safer, and more people receive access to transportation.

But one concern is cost — can we really afford these things? To give a car “eyes,” so it can see and drive itself has been expensive, to the point of absurdity.

LIDAR, a sensor most in the field view as essential to giving a car the gift of sight, can cost more than twice as much as the vehicle itself. A popular early model from Velodyne, used by many, costs $75,000.

It’s also slightly comical in appearance. There’s no shortage of colorful descriptors for the “Zach Morris phone” of the self-driving car era, which was originally developed for DARPA’s self-driving challenge in 2007.

“They kind of look like spinning Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets,” said Google’s Chris Urmson, who heads its self-driving car project and initially used the $75,000 sensors on its test vehicles.

“It looks like a giant turret,” said Velodyne’s own John Eggert, its automotive sales manager.

His company only made 500 of the $75,000 sensors, and knows they aren’t practical for mass production. But Velodyne and other players in the self-driving space are delivering drastically cheaper LIDAR, suggesting the price of the sensors won’t hold back the rollout of autonomous driving.

“Our customers are telling us they want it to be below $100, that’s kind of the roadmap we’re working from in the back of our mind,” Eggert said.

Velodyne is developing a sub-$500 LIDAR sensor, the VLP-32, that it says will be powerful enough for high-level assisted driving, and autonomous driving. (It declined to reveal exact technical specifications.) Velodyne has development contracts with two manufacturers, one in North America and one in Japan, to deliver the sensor in the first four months of 2016.

And the new sensor isn’t going to be a hulking piece of equipment either. It’s small enough that some players have expressed interest in putting the sensor in vehicle side mirrors. Others may put it on the roof, the easiest way to get a 360-degree view.

Quanergy chief executive Louay Edlada believes LIDAR will cost below $100 in five years. It’s releasing a solid state LIDAR — meaning none of the parts move — next month for $250.

In early LIDAR a spinning box bounces laser beams off targets and captures the reflections to map out its surroundings.

A solid state LIDAR would deliver the same end result, but without moving. Other technologies, such as computer hard drives, have historically matured from parts that move to those that don’t. (Velodyne says solid-state LIDAR is on its product roadmap.)

Delphi, a Quanergy partner, said it plans to use four of the $250 LIDAR sensors to outfit a vehicle with eyes.

Google has since developed its own LIDAR sensors. Urmson, who spoke earlier this week at a Volpe National Transportation Systems Center eventdescribed them as comparable to the $75,000 sensors, but an order of magnitude cheaper, even at quantities of 50 or 100.

One notable exception to the LIDAR bandwagon is Tesla chief executive Elon Musk. He has called it unnecessary, arguing that optic cameras and radar are enough.

While other hurdles stand in the way of the self-driving revolution, the cost of the technology — no matter what vision solution is settled on — appears unlikely to be one of them.