Weekly Brief: Waymo Surges to $30Bn Valuation with Latest LiDAR

A fleet of sleek, self-driving Jaguars has hit the streets in Northern California.

They’re carrying on board what Waymo said last week is its most advanced driverless technology ever. The fifth generation Waymo Driver includes 29 cameras that are mounted on the front, back, top and sides of each vehicle so the car has no blind spots and claim to pick out a stop sign up to 1,600 feet, or a third of a mile, away. It also includes a new LiDAR unit that scans its surroundings with a resolution 10 times stronger than that of the last one. Best of all, the new tech costs half of that of its predecessor owing to greater manufacturing efficiencies and a more streamlined design.

That’s significant given that one of the biggest impediments to deploying self-driving cars at scale, above and beyond the challenge of ensuring safety, is keeping costs down. LiDAR in particular is notoriously expensive, which has led some companies like Tesla to eschew the units altogether. Elon Musk famously believes that “anyone relying on LiDAR is doomed” although Autopilot’s poor track record might persuade many to beg to differ. Indeed, most experts agree that LiDAR is the best option available for reading surroundings in three dimensions, thus requiring no secondary interpretation of a 2D data stream. Waymo’s previous hardware suite, which is in use in all of its Chrysler Pacifica minivans in Arizona has two separate LiDAR units to process the field at long range and mid range. This new system has just one LiDAR unit that can do both at once.

Another advantage claimed is that the same hardware suite can work without modification on any type of vehicle, from self-driving cars and minivans all the way up to self-driving big rigs. That’s a first and could help the company save money and time as it scales its own fleet in the future. Likewise, Driver’s adaptability could help the company shift its focus to becoming primarily a self-driving tech provider to other carmakers in the future, rather than a service provider that has to deal with pain of passengers and the complexities of managing ride hailing platforms around the world.

Last week Waymo raised $2.25Bn from outside investors, a massive haul that saw the company valued at $30Bn, $11Bn more than its closest competitor, General Motor’s Cruise. In doing so, its CEO John Krafcik acknowledged that the company is still feeling out the field and experimenting with where its greatest value will be. One possibility, he said, is that it builds its entire business model around Driver.

Before any of that can happen, the company first has to test the new tech out. It’s already submitted the cameras and LiDAR to a full range of torture, from drilling them with ball bearings at close range to scorching them in Death Valley and freezing them in the pits of a Midwestern winter. Next up is the Jaguar I-Pace test mules. The company hasn’t switched the self-driving cars into autonomous mode yet; for now it has human drivers behind the wheel and are being used to collect data and improve its machine learning models. As the new technology gets more miles under its belt, the technicians plan to switch the Jaguars into autonomous mode while keeping safety drivers behind the wheel. If all goes well at that point, the cars will begin giving its employees rides around the Bay Area, and it will then integrate the tech into its self-driving trucks and its Waymo One service in Phoenix. From there, it’s onto the rest of the world.

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