GM’s Cruise Automation unit has acquired Strobe, a startup which has been working on “chip-scale” LIDAR technology for use in self-driving cars. LIDAR is one of the big bottlenecks in autonomous tech development, both expensive and low-volume at present, with Velodyne currently the dominant supplier. As this Recode piece points out, GM is a bit more deeply invested in autonomous driving than most other legacy carmakers, having acquired Cruise itself as the “brain” of the system and also running various experiments of ride sharing and other services through Cruise and the GM Maven brand, and this acquisition extends that integration. My guess is that the technology was at a fairly early stage – the company seems to have just 11 employees – and it’s therefore unproven, though GM had an existing investment and may know something other potential acquirers didn’t, allowing it to swoop in at an opportune moment to take it off the market. Waymo and Uber, of course, are battling in court over the latter’s attempts to make its own in the image (or otherwise) of Waymo’s.
For all the hyberbolic references to monopolies that sometimes afflict the tech industry, here’s a case where one company really does have what appears to be a monopoly, and on a critical component for autonomous vehicles: LIDAR. LIDAR is the same visual radar technology at the heart of the Waymo-Uber lawsuit, because they’re two of only a very small number of companies currently attempting to make their own, while everyone else buys them from Velodyne at $30-40,000 a pop. The global market for LIDAR is currently in the thousands, and the company expects to ship around ten thousand this year, but it and others would obviously have to ramp to tens of millions a year to supply the global automotive industry in the longer term. And those prices will come down massively – Waymo has supposedly reduced the cost dramatically for its own units.
via The Information
It’s striking to me that this piece never mentions Nvidia once, even though that chip company has been making much of the noise in the automotive space over the past year, especially when it comes to autonomous driving. That prominence is clearly a driver for this deal, with Intel signing some of its own deals but not getting nearly the buzz Nvidia has been. Mobileye, meanwhile, has been striking deals left and right with a variety of players (though it recently ended its relationship with Tesla). Just in the last three months, it’s announced partnerships with HERE and BMW over mapping, but it’s also in many of other car manufacturers’ existing cars and their autonomous plans. Given Intel’s ongoing struggles in the mobile space, its recent loss of the Microsoft server business to Qualcomm and the ARM architecture, and the ongoing stagnation in PCs, it needs some new drivers of growth, and in-car technology could provide that. Mobileye is also attractive as a business – it’s growing fast (almost 50% year on year in 2016) and profitable, with fairly high margins. So this isn’t an acquisition that will take years to contribute to Intel’s business, although its overall scale is still small. But it’s integration opportunity and the eventual opportunity to sell a joined up solution of chips and sensors which Intel will be focusing on here.
Just when we’d got used to the idea that Alphabet was only going to do software when it comes to autonomous driving, it seems it will do some of its own hardware work, specifically on sensors rather than making cars. Not every carmaker that partners with Waymo will want to use its sensors, but it allows Alphabet to own more of the technology and ensure it all works well together.