Bringing 'Created in China' vision closer
When internet giant Baidu and car manufacturer JAC Motor signed a cooperative agreement last week with a plan to launch mass-produced driverless cars in two years’ time, autonomous driving again came under the spotlight.
An exciting new world in city transport looms in the coming years as leading inter-national companies step up efforts to make autonomous vehicles not only ubiquitous but also an integral part of our daily lives.
In fact, Hong Kong and Singapore have already got the ball rolling with the launch of driverless metro trains and electric vehicles. The Lion City is also eyeing another ﬁrst with a fully autonomous taxi fleet in service by next year.
According to a report by market consultancy iiMedia Research, the global driver-less car market stood at $4 billion last year, and the growth rate is expected to accelerate over the next few years. By 2021, the report said, the world market is likely to reach $7.03 billion.
Shenzhen entrepreneur Qiu Chunchao is determined not to miss out, aiming to tap into a fundamental part of the industry.
He set up Suteng Innovation Technology Co in 2014, producing RS-LiDAR-16 – a 16-beam miniature Lidar (light detection and ranging) device.
Lidar is a type of sensor that helps machines perceive the environment using laser pulses. It enables machines to “see the world” like a human does with his or her eyes.
Compared with other types of sensors, the latest device has the advantages of high resolution and being insusceptible to light. These characteristics determine that it can offer more precise data and can be used in a wider range of settings, which means safer and wider applications.
“Lidar is seen as an indispensable part of autonomous driving, for which environment perception, navigation and localization are the founding blocks,” says Qiu.
The three-year-old start up has emerged as one of the few players worldwide that are capable of producing Lidar on a grand scale.
“At present, the global Lidar market is still in its infancy,” Qiu tells China Daily.
“The production procedure for Lidar is complicated and requires a long period. So far, there’re only two companies in the world, including us, that have the ability to embark on mass production.”
“It’s for this reason there’s an acute shortage in the sup-ply of Lidar. It’s no exaggeration to say that clients are grabbing it.”
The other key player in Lidar production is US-based Velodyne LiDar, which sup-plies the devices to titan enterprises that read like a Who’s Who in the global tech and automobile business, including Baidu, Tencent, Ford, Volvo and drone maker DJI.
Velodyne supplies mainly high-density Lidar with 64 beams, which cost about 700,000 yuan ($106,222) per unit. Because of the high price and the long production period involved, according to Qiu, it’s hard for the product to commercialize.
RS-LiDAR-16, however, solves the problem.
“Costly high beam density Lidar is no longer the only option. Instead, we offer customized coupling solutions to customers according to their speciﬁc demands. While a group of Lidars give more leeway in maintenance and deliver robust performance in complicated driving environments, they only take a small part of the cost of a 64-beam Lidar.”
Qiu says his company will have 100 production lines in the coming months, with the aim of producing 50 RS-LiDAR-16 a day. So far, one-third of the production lines are in operation.
“We’re committed to bringing down the price of Lidar significantly to just a few thousand dollars, thereby accelerating the trend of autonomous driving.”
Based in Shenzhen, Suteng Innovation Technology has also set up offices in Beijing and Silicon Valley, staffed by more than 130 employees. The company has so far secured funding of 100 mil-lion yuan from investors such as Fosun Group and Oriental Fortune Capital.
Suteng has also entered in partnership with a number of leading players in the industry, like e-commerce powerhouse JD, Cainiao, the logistics arm of Alibaba Group, and Baidu. According to Qiu, JD has placed several hundred orders with the company.
JD made a splash on the Chinese mainland with the use of its ﬁrst batch of driverless delivery cars on June 18 – the mid-year shopping festival launched by the company. The cars’ sensors came from Suteng.
While making Lidar cheap-er is expected to fuel the development of autonomous driving, Lidar’s role is not restricted to the ﬁeld. In fact, it can be applied in a wide range of ﬁelds like robotics, drones and transportation.
In robotics, Lidar enables robots to adapt to complex and unknown environments by equipping them with precise environment perception capability.
“With the development of high technology, Lidar will gain larger and wider application,” says Qiu.
“We hope to make our own contributions in the transformation process of ‘Made in China’ to ‘Created in China’. That’s our mission.”