GM Buys Sensor Startup for Robocar Push

The automaker says Strobe's LIDAR sensors are a "game changer" in its effort to deploy large fleets of self-driving vehicles.
Matthew HellerOctober 9, 2017

General Motors has acquired laser sensor technology startup Strobe in a deal it called a “game changer” for its effort to develop self-driving cars.

Strobe’s LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors not only use laser light to measure the distance to objects but also measure the object’s velocity. The Pasadena, Calif.-based company has succeeded in reducing the sensor to a unit that fits in a person’s hand, making it considerably less expensive than competitors’ products.

The acquisition announced Monday is significant because LIDAR sensors “have been one of the bottlenecks for deploying [autonomous] cars at scale,” Kyle Vogt, chief executive of GM’s Cruise Automation unit, said in a blog post.

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“They’re expensive, they’re large, have a lot of mechanical moving parts, and the solutions today lack the performance to unlock self-driving operation at higher speeds and in more challenging environments,” he explained.

Strobe, Vogt said, had collapsed its entire sensor down to a single chip, which will reduce the cost of each sensor on GM’s self-driving cars by 99%. The premiere sensors currently on the market, made by Velodyne, cost roughly $80,000 apiece.

“The idea that the LiDAR is too costly or exotic to use in a commercial product is now a thing of the past,” Vogt said.

Terms of the deal with Strobe were not disclosed but the startup will not only supply GM with its technology but also its engineering team. GM and Ford are aiming to have fully self-driving cars on sale by 2021.

The deal is “potentially a crucial move in [GM’s] plan to deploy large fleets of robocars, given the importance of the sensor and the difficulty of making it not just robust and reliable, but cost-effective,” Wired said.

LIDAR systems fire millions of laser beams every second and, because they don’t rely on ambient light, can detect objects in virtually all lighting and weather conditions.

“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,” Vogt said.