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Ford, China's Baidu invest $150M in self-driving 3D laser tech

Ford and China's leading search engine company, Baidu, announced today that they've each invested $75 million in Velodyne LiDAR Inc., a Silicon Valley maker of laser technology that allows cars to autonomously navigate.

The money will be used to speed development and manufacturing of next-generation LiDAR or Light, Detection and Ranging technology, which uses lasers to create a 3D image of the area around a vehicle.

Velodyne

Three models of Velodyne's LiDAR laser ranging technology.

Last year, Ford pledged to triple the number of Fusion Hybrid self-driving research cars from 10 to 30, which it now claims surpasses the fully autonomous vehicle fleet of all other automakers.

Ford already uses Velodyne's LiDAR on its test vehicles at its Arizona Proving Ground and the University of Michigan's Mcity, a 32-acre, full-scale simulated real-world urban environment where vehicles self-drive in every condition, including snow.

Ford also plans to double the members of its Silicon Valley research team to more than 300, according to Ford CEO Mark Fields. Ford chose Palo Alto, Calif. last year for its latest automotive research and development facility.

General Motors, BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan-Renault and Toyota have all opened R&D centers in Silicon Valley.

In April, China's Baidu announced plans to expand its own autonomous driving lab in Sunnyvale, Calif. to more than 100 researchers who will focus on development of computer vision, robotics and machine learning.

Through a development partnership with BMW, Baidu is already testing self-driving vehicles in China; it plans to begin testing them in the U.S. this year.

BMW

One of Baidu's BMW self driving cars with LiDAR atop it.

"Our investment will accelerate our efforts in autonomous driving with what, in our view, are the best LiDAR sensors available today, and advance Velodyne's development of increasingly sophisticated LiDAR sensors," Jing Wang, general managers of Baidu's Autonomous Driving Unit, said in a statement.

Along with exterior cameras and radar, LiDAR is a key technology in enabling autonomous driving technology in that it can create a 3D picture of what surrounds a vehicle. LiDAR's laser ranging technology allows autonomous cars to drive just as well in the dark as they do in the daytime.

"From the very beginning of our autonomous vehicle program, we saw LiDAR as a key enabler due to its sensing capabilities and how it complements radar and cameras," Raj Nair, Ford's CTO, said in a statement.

Founded in 1983 as an audio tech company, Velodyne has over the past decade developed four generations LiDAR technology.

Velodyne's LiDAR technology includes proprietary software and algorithms that interpret data gathered from the laser-based sensors attached to vehicles. The result is   a high-resolution 3D digital image that is used for mapping, localization, object identification and collision avoidance.

Velodyne's latest LIDAR sensor is capable of producing 300,000 to 2.2 million data points per second with a range up to 200 meters at centimeter-level accuracy, the company said.

Velodyne said that the latest round of investments from its partners will enable it to "rapidly expand the design and production of high performance, cost-effective automotive LiDAR sensors," which will help the technology go mainstream.

"We want the cost to be low enough to be used for all cars. We envision a safer world for the millions of automotive drivers across the globe," Marta Hall, Velodyne president of business development, said in a statement.

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