How we’re solving the LIDAR problem

Sensors are a critical enabler for deploying self-driving cars at scale, and LIDARs (sensors that use laser light to measure the distance to objects) are currently the bottleneck. Existing commercially available solutions cost tens of thousands of dollars, are bulky and mechanically complex, and lack the performance needed to unlock self-driving operation at higher speeds and in more challenging weather.

To solve these problems we’ve acquired Strobe, a company that has quietly been building the leading next-generation LIDAR sensors. Strobe’s new chip-scale LIDAR technology will significantly enhance the capabilities of our self-driving cars. But perhaps more importantly, by collapsing the entire sensor down to a single chip, we’ll reduce the cost of each LIDAR on our self-driving cars by 99%.

As the cost of our self-driving vehicles declines, we’ll be able to accelerate the rate of vehicle production and more quickly roll out our technology to suburban and rural areas where ride sharing is less common today.

An early Strobe LIDAR prototype. Sharpie for scale.

LIDAR sensors contribute to the redundancy and overlapping capabilities needed to build a car that operates without a driver, even in the most challenging environments. Our new sensors are robust to interference from sunlight, even in extreme cases, which means they can continue to operate in situations where camera-based solutions fail. When the sun is low in the sky and reflects off wet pavement, camera systems (and humans) are almost completely blinded. And when a person in all black is walking on black pavement at night, even the human eye has trouble spotting them soon enough:

Jaywalking pedestrian wearing a dark coat at night.

Strobe’s LIDAR sensors provide both accurate distance and velocity information, which can be checked against similar information from a RADAR sensor for redundancy. RADARs typically also provide distance and velocity information and operate under more challenging weather conditions, but they lack the angular resolution needed to make certain critical maneuvers at speed. When used together, cameras, LIDARs, and RADARs can complement each other to create a robust and fault-tolerant sensing suite that operates in a wide range of environmental and lighting conditions.

Our acquisition of Strobe is a significant step toward our mission to deploy self-driving cars at scale. The founders, Julie Schoenfeld and Dr. Lute Maleki, and their team bring decades of sensor development experience to Cruise. Strobe, Cruise, and GM engineers will work side by side along with our optics and fabrication experts at HRL (formerly Hughes Research Labs), the GM skunkworks-like division that invented the world’s first laser. Together we’ll significantly reduce the time needed to create a safer and more affordable form of transportation and deploy it at scale.

The Strobe team and Cruise founders.