Ford, Baidu bet $150M on Velodyne laser radar – USA TODAY
SAN FRANCISCO – Velodyne, a Silicon Valley company that makes a critical component for self-driving cars, has raised $150 million from two companies racing to put autonomous cars on the road.
Ford Motor Company and Chinese search engine Baidu are co-leads in the round, Velodyne announced Tuesday. Velodyne’s puck-shaped Lidar, or laser radar, devices take the place of human eyes by relaying terrain information to on-board computers.
The investment comes as competition heats up between automakers and tech companies looking to gain an early lead in the evolving transportation revolution. Recent deals range from Volkswagen’s $300 million investment in European Uber-rival Gett to General Motors’ $1 billion purchase of Cruise Automation.
“This will allow us to accelerate our push for low-cost, mass produced sensors,” Velodyne president Mike Jellen told USA TODAY, adding that the capital will be steered toward investments in semiconductor technology and other advanced R&D.
Privately held Velodyne was started in 1983 by David Hall as an audio company, but in 2007 began pioneering work in Lidar. It is the company’s first major fundraising round.
Jellen says Velodyne currently works with 25 self-driving car programs. With between two to four Lidar pucks needed per car, the company is in a position to reap a windfall should the promise of autonomous cars be fully realized.
“Annual unit sales of 200 to 300 million is realistic,” says Jellen.
Ford CEO Mark Fields told USA TODAY that his company has been working with Velodyne for the past 10 years on its evolving car-tech programs, and the investment represented “Ford’s commitment to taking the next step with regard to partnering with people who have technical know-how.”
Ford announced Tuesday that in an effort to accelerate its Smart Mobility plan, the company intends to double the size of both its Silicon Valley staff by year end (to around 300 employees) and the size of its facility (adding 150,000 square feet).
Fields plans to unveil more self-driving car project news Tuesday during a presentation at Ford’s Silicon Valley research facility.
Ford’s Velodyne announcement comes on the heels of its $182 million investment in cloud-services company Pivotal in May. Data crunching is critical for automobile manufacturers as upstarts such as Palo Alto-based Tesla tout the software-driven prowess of their products.
The Dearborn automaker also recently participated in a $6.6 million seed round for Civil Maps, a Berkeley-based company focusing on high-definition imagery that is considered indispensable to producing safe driverless cars.
Driverless cars operate through a combination of on-board laser, radar and camera technology that, using powerful computers, locate the vehicle in its environment and track the movement of nearby pedestrians and traffic.
In January, Ford announced at the Consumer Electronics Show that Velodyne Lidar would be used in its expanding fleet of self-driving Ford Fusion Hybrid vehicles, which are being tested on roads in Michigan, California and Arizona.
While on the surface it might seem strange for Baidu to invest in a Lidar company, the lines are blurring between tech and automotive as companies in both camps look to secure their piece of the re-sliced automotive pie that is more about sharing than owning.
In June, Baidu officials said the company was eager to roll out a self-driving car by 2021, providing the relevant technology to an existing automaker. That’s the same approach being taken by Google, which has said that an autonomous car should be ready by 2020.
In May, Fiat Chrysler announced it would be making 100 Pacifica minivans to accommodate Google’s tech so the search company could expand its testing efforts. Although much of Google’s self-driving car tech is proprietary, initial iterations of its Lexus vehicles used Velodyne Lidar to guide the vehicle.
Ride-hailing giant Uber also is getting into the self-driving car game, having established a research facility in Pittsburgh staffed by top roboticists from nearby Carnegie Mellon University.
And while Apple continues to shoot down rumors of a car project, the Cupertino has invested $1 billion with Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi, which in turn recently folded Uber China into its operation.
Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter: @marcodellacava