Continental AG, the German auto-parts supplier, acquired a division of Advanced Scientific Concepts Inc. that makes an imaging sensor used in autonomous vehicles.
Continental wouldn’t divulge the value of the deal, which includes employees and technology. Santa Barbara, Calif.,-based ASC develops laser technologies for enhanced imaging.
Hanover, Germany-based Continental is best known for tires, but also supplies electronics for advanced driver-assistance systems like automatic emergency braking and auto-steering. It provides the components for Mercedes-Benz’s automated driving gear but didn’t previously have its own high-definition, three-dimensional laser sensor.
As auto makers hurtle toward offering cars that can drive themselves, researchers believe that lidar—for light detection and ranging—will be a requirement. ASC’s sensor has no moving parts, a feature car makers prefer to avoid breakdowns. It blasts beams of light that reflect back to the sensor and provide data on the distance to objects in its field of view.
Unlike cameras, which rely on image-recognition algorithms, a lidar’s calculations are based on simple geometry, which computers can interpret with speed and accuracy. Nissan Motor Co.’s autonomous Leaf electric car uses several ASC’s sensors located around a vehicle, to construct a nearly 360-degree field of vision.
Continental’s purchase will allow for the mass production of the ASC sensors and make it a sensor rival to Delphi Automotive PLC, another big supplier of auto parts. Delphi last year invested in solid-state lidar sensor-maker Quanergy Systems Inc.
Delphi, through its deal with Quanergy, hopes to get the price of the individual solid-state lidar to between $200 and $300, or $1,000 for a suite of sensors. Continental, similarly, is looking to drive down the cost of the sensor through scale.
Continental is hiring 22 ASC engineers involved in sensor development and plans to expand the staff involved to more than 100 workers, the company said.
“We see this a way to scale up and lower the cost of this technology and offer a complete suite of technologies,” said Kathryn Blackwell, a Continental spokeswoman.
Today, most autonomous-driving vehicles being tested use a spinning lidar developed byDavid Hall at Velodyne Acoustics Inc., a Morgan Hill, Calif.-based company.
Velodyne’s spinning lidar is credited with dramatically advancing the state of mobile robotics by giving a three-dimensional view of the surroundings that a computer could easily understand. Mr. Hall’s 64-laser lidar made its debut on his entry in the 2005 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Grand Challenge to race autonomous vehicles across the Mojave Desert. He didn’t win the race, but his invention was so impressive that Darpa asked him to stop competing and start building the device for other teams.
Velodyne technology rose alongside Google Inc.’s self-driving car project. The spinning lasers, adorned the top of its driverless cars for years and have been used to create the maps available through Google and Apple Inc. and others. Google stopped using the Velodyne sensor after it developed its own.
The dreamlike images created by the Velodyne are actually a collection of millions of points of light sent out by the lasers, spinning around 10 times a second.
At one point Velodyne’s lidars cost more than $80,000. Today, the company offers a 16-laser “ultra puck” for less than $8,000. The spinning lasers have the advantage of giving a 360-degree view and have a 200-meter range, which is longer than some competing systems.
Mr. Hall, in a recent interview, said the company is working on its own laser sensor that doesn’t use moving parts and to drive down the cost. “We are totally focused on lowering the cost,” he said. He recognizes that the moving parts of his sensor is an inhibitor for warranty-conscious car makers.
Ford Motor Co. has committed to using the Velodyne sensors, putting some into the side-view mirrors of an autonomous-driving car prototype. Jim McBride, who leads Ford’s autonomous car research, said he doesn’t think it is possible to offer an autonomous car without a laser range finder that gives a full, 360-degree view around the car, and that the collection of lidar stuck around the car actually gives more opportunity for failures or damage.
There is another school of thought that these laser sensors aren’t required at all. Tesla Motors Inc. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk has said the company plans to use an eight-camera system that would “see” all around the car for its autonomous vehicle program. He said the lidar was overkill, necessary for docking spacecraft, but not driving vehicles.