LiDAR of the pack – Q&A with Cepton - Just Auto
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LiDAR of the pack – Q&A with Cepton

By Matthew Beecham 26 Aug 2021 (Last Updated August 26th, 2021 16:07)

LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is said to be the most important of the sensor suite enabling different levels of driver autonomy. For an update on the evolving market, we spoke to Cepton’s CEO and co-founder, Jun Pei.

LiDAR of the pack – Q&A with Cepton
Jun Pei

LiDAR is used in ADAS for measuring distance and forming 3D representations of its surrounding objects and their positioning. Applications such as lane change assist, highway pilot and traffic jam assist rely on LiDAR. It works by emitting a laser on targets and analysing the light reflected to gauge distance. It has been hailed as the biggest auto safety technology since the seat belt and should be commonplace in new car models in the next few years. LiDAR can also support autonomous driving. 

Could you tell us a little about Cepton, the shape it is in today, your customers and aims for the next 12 months?

Cepton is the leader in high-performance MMT LiDAR solutions for automotive and smart infrastructure applications. We started the company with the vision that LiDAR could become an essential safety sensor in vehicles – to reduce traffic collisions and the human and financial toll of vehicle and pedestrian accidents, and to enable safe autonomous driving. Over time, we have extended this vision to smart infrastructure in cities, spaces and industrial robotics.

In automotive, our end customers are primarily automotive OEMs offering ADAS features in passenger vehicles, with anticipated expansion into autonomous vehicle (AV) customers in the coming years. In smart infrastructure, our customers are typically system integrators and OEMs deploying solutions in markets such as smart cities, smart spaces and smart industrials.

We believe we are poised to lead the ADAS LiDAR market after having secured the largest known ADAS LiDAR series production award to date, based on number of vehicle models awarded, with a leading, global Top 5 automotive company (OEM). This win was secured in partnership with our current partner and investor, Koito, a leading global automotive Tier 1 supplier. In addition, we have ongoing engagements with all the other Top 10 global automotive OEMs.

Recently, we announced Cepton’s plan to go public through a business combination agreement with Growth Capital Acquisition Corp.

We understand that you have the support of Ford. Could you tell us more about this?

We are grateful for the collaboration with Ford Motor Company, as highlighted in their recent blog post. Our collaboration has been in two areas. First, working with Ford, we sought to understand their requirements for their ADAS R&D efforts and we provided them with a customised version of our Vista-X LiDARs, which they are using for data collection. Second, we have been working with Ford to support some of their smart city sensor deployments.

LiDAR is said to be the most important of the sensor suite that enables the different levels of driver autonomy. Yet one of the challenges for manufacturers with this type of sensor, in particular, is to find reliability and robustness along with economic viability.  How does your solution address this?

Cepton’s unique value proposition is our patented, directional LiDAR technology, known as MMT. Our MMT LiDARs use a mirrorless, rotation-free and frictionless method for three-dimensional imaging which maximises optical efficiency, reliability and scalability. With MMT, we can also offer a compact form factor (size) and low power consumption, which makes it easier for customers to seamlessly integrate our LiDARs in vehicle fascia, in headlamps, on the roof and behind windshields, making them versatile for ADAS applications. In addition, we use mainstream materials and components, enabling low cost.

Presumably, making LiDAR units smaller to embed into a windscreen or headlights is another consideration. How can Koito help in this respect?

Koito is the leading provider of automotive headlamps in the world and has a lot of experience with packaging and integration. Once we provide a compact LiDAR design to Koito, their engineering team can work with the OEM to understand the OEM packaging constraints and preferences and come up with packaging options suitable for the OEM. If the OEM prefers a fascia mount or mounting behind the windshield or integration in the headlamps, Koito and Cepton can support any and all of these options. We have found Koito to be a great partner overall, but especially on the topic of vehicle integration.

Could you give us an idea of how much your LiDAR units cost (a range) in mass production and how costs could fall in the coming years?  Also, what is the power consumption of your solution?

As you know, costs are very sensitive to unit volumes. As part of our recent announcement, we have publicly communicated that prices for our long-range LiDARs are currently in the low thousands of dollars. Over the next 5-6 years, we expect prices to drop to the $500-600 range.

For near-range LiDARs, we have publicly communicated high volume ADAS target pricing in the $100 range a few years from now.

We expect the typical power consumption for our long-range LiDARs to be around 12-15 W, depending on the configuration. For near range LiDARs, we expect it to be below 5 W.  

ADAS is a fast-evolving landscape. While we are seeing an acceleration of level 1 and 2 driving automation, there are delays in higher levels due to the lack of an established regulatory framework and the technical challenge of providing safety in all driving situations. In terms of Level 2+ for cars in the near future, how do you see the market evolving?

As you mentioned, automotive OEMs currently offer a range of L1/L2 ADAS features such as lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking, which have helped improve vehicle safety while adding comfort features that consumers value. What we are observing is that many OEMs and their Tier 1 suppliers are actively working to improve their ADAS offerings on new vehicle models. This might involve enhancing the capability and usability of existing L2 features or offering additional features such as highway pilot and traffic jam pilot, sometimes referred to as L3 or L2+ ADAS features.  While L2+ ADAS features are included in a select number of vehicles today, over the next five to ten years, such advanced ADAS features are expected to become mainstream and achieve widespread adoption.

We believe that rapid growth in L2+ ADAS adoption in consumer vehicles is likely due to three key factors:

  • Growing consumer demand for enhanced safety and autonomous features in the vehicles they purchase.
  • Continued emphasis by regulators on reducing traffic accidents and fatalities, which increases the likelihood that ADAS features considered optional today might become mandatory over time.
  • The shift towards software-based subscription models for ADAS features, which are expected to increase the attach rate of ADAS-related hardware in consumer vehicles. 

Cameras have become almost universal in cars compared to a decade ago. How do you see the marketplace for LiDAR’s evolving? 

While cameras are currently ubiquitous in cars, they are not able to meet all the requirements for functionality and safety when it comes to ADAS. For example, we published some examples a few months ago highlighting the many real-world scenarios where ADAS using camera and radar encounter serious issues or failures. The examples illustrate common challenges for camera/radar systems such as the impact of lighting conditions, road surface conditions, curvature and slope of roads, presence of certain objects or obstacles on the sides of the roads, etc.

LiDARs are becoming popular precisely because of those reasons. LiDARs offer much better resolution than radars – thereby enabling very accurate 3D object detection, classification, velocity and tracking in a way that cameras cannot match. LiDARs also work well 24/7 regardless of lighting conditions, compared to cameras. These are just a couple of examples of the value LiDARs bring to the table and why automotive OEMs are increasingly making plans to add LiDARs to ADAS systems.

I guess developing LiDAR for autonomous vehicles is just the first step for Cepton. What other sector opportunities for LiDAR technologies are you serving?

To be more precise, we started the company with a focus on LiDARs for ADAS in mass-market consumer vehicles. Unlike many competitors, we were more sceptical about the market size for fully autonomous vehicles (L4 AV) in the near term mainly because we felt the complexity involved in deploying L4 AVs at scale is daunting. Having said that, we believe that the compelling price paired with the high performance of Cepton’s LiDARs places us in a strong position to grow our core business beyond mass-market ADAS, into the autonomous vehicles (AV) and adjacent smart infrastructure markets. We are seeing a wide proliferation of LiDAR technology into a number of the non-automotive (i.e., smart infrastructure) markets. For example, we are working with several OEMs and system integrators to deploy our LiDARs and perception solutions in a range of smart city, smart space and smart industrial applications such as pedestrian detection and pedestrian safety especially at traffic intersections, vehicle safety, wrong-way driving detection, rail track and intersection safety, vehicle profiling/classification for e-tolling, social distancing and crowd analytics, security, safety and more. The versatility of our solutions and their broad applicability is a key differentiator for Cepton.

What have you learned during the pandemic that you did not expect to learn? 

I have learned a fresh aspect of people’s personalities that I probably would have never learned during normal times. This includes how people react during unplanned events, their resilience when facing obstacles, and most importantly, their desire to advance and win under the most difficult circumstances. The pandemic added a huge layer of burden on top of everything people need to do for work and life every day. It is those who thrive and shine who will be the most successful, both personally and professionally. 

What’s next for Cepton?

Given our large ADAS LiDAR win and our new business opportunities, we sought to take advantage of the SPAC based business combination to raise additional financing. We plan to expand our automotive ADAS OEM engagements and continue to invest in our business and technology to support our long-term growth plans.