31-08-2021 | By Sam Brown
Waymo is well known for its development in LiDAR and self-driving systems but recently announced that they would no longer be selling its LiDAR systems. Who are Waymo, what has led Waymo to stop the selling of LiDAR, and what could their other intentions be?
Waymo is an American company that focuses on developing self-driving systems and has been operational since 2009. Before their name change in 2016, the company was known as the Google Self-Driving Car Project to develop a fully functional autonomous car driving system (as the name would suggest). After several years into development, the division separated from Google (while still an Alphabet company) and changed its name to Waymo.
Waymo utilises a wide range of technology to create vehicles that can navigate traffic, including LiDAR, RADAR, and visual cameras. The use of different technologies allows their vehicles to see in all conditions and at various ranges. For example, RADAR is used to track objects in motion, while LiDAR is used for nearby objects.
While their technology is still developing, Waymo runs a limited robot-taxi service in the US with their latest public testing facility in San Francisco. Waymo has also capitalised on its technology and sold numerous pieces of hardware to other companies, including LiDAR.
However, these sales were limited to companies that were not involved in the automotive business for competition reasons.
Recently, Waymo announced that it would no longer sell LiDAR systems to outside companies after management changes (primarily a new CEO). Instead of selling hardware, Waymo will turn its full attention to developing robot-taxi services as well as autonomous truck systems.
Comments from Waymo suggest that the previous CEO John Krafcki did not have a real drive towards commercialisation, something that Waymo must have in order to be able to continue developing its autonomous technology.
The LiDAR system developed by Waymo, called Laser Bear Honeycomb, was first produced in 2017 and stated to be far cheaper than mainstream solutions. Specifically, it was said that the cost of LiDAR could be brought down from $75,000 to $7,500 making it ideal and practical for mass commercialisation. The selling of this LiDAR system was aimed at helping to recuperate costs in R&D, but it now seems that Waymo is invested in Robo-taxis more than selling hardware.
Waymo also said their self-driving system accumulated 20 billion miles in simulation experience and 20 million miles on public roads. This demonstrates how digital twins and simulators can help test and train AI without the AI needing to be physically present.
Waymo’s announcement suggests that selling LiDAR systems is not profitable as companies that stop selling a product usually do so for that very reason. However, Waymo is already running robot-taxi services and is looking to expand its fleet with more public testing. Shortages could be an indication that Waymo could have made a breakthrough in its autonomous driving technology.
If Waymo has successfully created an autonomous vehicle system (beyond someone sitting at the wheel in case something goes wrong), then keeping the technology that powers it away from public hands would ensure their market position for a long time. Considering that their competition (such as Tesla) is nowhere near developing true autonomous systems, Waymo could enjoy a monopoly for a long time.
As such, it is more likely that Waymo has recently made significant development in autonomous driving and wants to capitalise on it without informing their competition. This is further supported by the fact that Waymo already has robot taxis in operation that does not have human drivers at the controls.