Many have wondered about the revenue model for Waymo, the self-driving car unit of Alphabet. Here’s one approach: get into the sensor business.
Waymo announced today its custom LiDAR sensors is available to customers that don’t compete with its robo-taxi business. The news was first reported by Bloomberg. Waymo said it will initially target robotics, security, and agricultural companies with three LiDAR sensors. The first will be the Laser Bear Honeycomb 3D perimeter, which is found on the bumper of Waymo’s self-driving vehicles and offers the following features:
Wide field of view: Where some 3D [LIDAR] have a vertical field of view (FOV) of just 30°, the Honeycomb has a vertical FOV of 95°, plus a 360° horizontal FOV. That means one Honeycomb can do the job of three other 3D sensors stacked on top of one another.
Multiple returns per pulse: When the Honeycomb sends out a pulse of light, it doesn’t just see the first object the laser beam touches. Instead, it can see up to four different objects in that laser beams’ line of sight (e.g., it can see both the foliage in front of a tree branch and the tree branch itself). This gives a rich and more detailed view of the environment, and uncovers objects that might otherwise be missed.
Minimum range of zero: The Honeycomb has a minimum range of zero, meaning it can see objects immediately in front of the sensor. This enables key capabilities such as near object detection and avoidance.
Waymo began manufacturing its own LIDAR sensors in 2011 to reduce cost. At the time, Waymo said it could lower the unit price from $75,000 for an off-the-shelf LIDAR sensor to just $7,500 with its own custom version. Waymo said it already has customers who have purchased its LiDAR sensor, but it won’t name them or disclose the unit price, of course.
This news can’t make major LiDAR suppliers such as Luminar, Quanergy and Velodyne happy as they also sell their sensors to robotics companies. Lowering the cost and size of LiDAR sensors has been a major initiative for these companies, too. Automotive LIDAR is expected to generate only $2.5 billion in revenue by 2025, according to industry researcher IHS Markit. Most self-driving car companies, with the exception of Tesla, rely on LiDAR to see and map the car’s environment.
“Offering this [LIDAR] to partners helps spur the growth of applications outside of self-driving cars and also propels our business forward,” Waymo said. “We can scale our autonomous technology faster, making each sensor more affordable through economies of scale.”
Waymo is offering self-driving taxi rides to a limited number of customers in Phoenix, Arizona. Waymo is also testing its vehicles in California, Michigan, and Georgia. According to the latest disengagement numbers from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, Waymo has by far the best-performing self-driving vehicles.
For the period of Nov. 31, 2017 through Dec. 1, 2018, Waymo’s self-driving vehicles experienced one disengagement every 11,017 miles. That performance marks a 50 percent reduction in the rate and a 96 percent increase in the average miles traveled between disengagements compared to the 2017 numbers. In 2016, Waymo had one disengagement every 5,128 miles. Waymo also drove significantly more miles, up from 352,000 miles in 2017 to 1.2 million miles in 2018, which makes the performance even more impressive.