Baidu, Ford invest US$150m on Silicon Valley firm that supplies sensors for self-driving cars

Velodyne’s LiDAR sensors can produce up to 2.2 million data points per second at 200 metres range at centimetre level of accuracy

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 6:30pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 9:06pm

Baidu and Ford Motor Co said they are investing a combined US$150 million on a Silicon Valley company that produces sensors for self-driving cars, stepping up their ambition to claim a share in the market for autonomous vehicles.

The investment in Velodyne LiDAR will expand the design and production of solid-state hybrid light, detention and ranging sensor technology, known as LiDAR, that can be used in a range of applications including three-dimensional mobile mapping, 3D aerial mapping and security.

“Baidu is developing autonomous vehicles with the intention to increase passenger safety and reduce traffic congestion and pollution in China,” said Wang Jing, a senior vice-president at the Chinese online search giant and the general manager of its autonomous driving unit. “Our investment will accelerate our efforts in autonomous driving with what, in our view, are the best LiDAR sensors available today.”

As many as 33 companies are currently involved in the development of driver assistance systems and self-driving cars, including Apple, General Motors Corp and Microsoft Corp.

Ford said it will triple its autonomous vehicle test fleet to be the largest test fleet of any carmaker – bringing the number to about 30 self-driving Fusion Hybrid sedans on the roads in California, Arizona and Michigan, with plans to triple it again next year.

“The next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile, and we see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” said Mark Fields, the president and chief executive at Ford.

Baidu’s investment follows that of Google, first of the major information technology companies to put self-driving vehicles on US roads for testing.

Led by the company’s Institute of Deep Learning since 2013, Baidu has a programme called the AutoBrain that has been conducting street testing of its fleet of autonomous vehicles in mainland China.

“In the past quarter, we signed contracts to operate commercial autonomous cars in designated areas in Beijing and in Wuhu,” Baidu chief executive Robin Li Yanhong said in a conference call with analysts last month.

Baidu’s foray into autonomous vehicles is also part of a strategy to diversify its business from its search function.

The company “should invest in new businesses amid the structural slowdown in search, although it may take years of investment before bearing fruit,” Nomura analyst Shi Jialong said in a report.

Over the past decade, Velodyne developed four generations of LiDAR systems. These incorporate the company’s proprietary software and algorithms that interpret rich data gathered from the environment through highly accurate laser-based sensors.

The data gathered creates high-resolution 3D digital images used for mapping, localisation, object identification and collision avoidance.

According to Velodyne, its LIDAR sensors are capable of producing “300,000 to 2.2 million data points per second with a range up to 200 metres at centimetre level of accuracy”.

The joint investment by Baidu and Ford “will accelerate the cost reduction and scaling of Velodyne’s industry-leading LiDAR sensors, making them widely accessible and enabling mass deployment of fully autonomous vehicles,” Velodyne founder and chief executive David Hall said.