Summary List Placement
To identify the lidar industry’s strongest players, Innoviz CEO Omer Keilaf thinks you need to look beyond the hundred-million-dollar SPAC deals and enthusiastic revenue projections to an essential but unglamorous cog in the automotive machine: tier-one suppliers.
Put simply, tier-one suppliers are the companies that make many of the parts automakers use to build their cars. One of their most valuable skills is ensuring those parts can hold up through the wear-and-tear that comes with thousands of miles of driving.
Innoviz and many (but not all) other lidar companies are aiming to become tier-two suppliers. They’ll sell their sensors to tier-ones, which will combine them with other components before selling them to car companies. If you’re a tier-two supplier and you want to gain a foothold in the auto industry, you’re going to need to work with a tier-one, Keilaf told Insider.
Innoviz has partnerships with four of them — Magna International, Aptiv, HiRain, and Harman International Industries — a roster Keilaf says none of Innoviz’s competitors can match.
Four of Innoviz’s top competitors — Velodyne, Luminar, Aeva, and Ouster — have a total of just three such partnerships between them. Two competitors, Luminar and Ouster, even cited their lack of existing relationships with tier-one suppliers as a risk factor when filing with the SEC, with both stating it might cause auto manufacturers to be less inclined to work with them.
Working with tier-one suppliers also sends a powerful signal that these companies think highly of the Innoviz idar technology, Keilaf said. Innoviz also received a vote of confidence from Collective Growth Corporation, a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) that agreed last year to take Innoviz public through a reverse merger, a maneuver whose popularity has skyrocketed in the past year, particularly among automotive technology companies. The deal is expected to close by the end of March and leave Innoviz with a $1.4 billion valuation.
Most autonomous-vehicle developers see lidars, which bounce beams of light off nearby objects to measure how far away they are, as essential pieces of a self-driving car, and some automakers are planning to use them to bolster their driver-assistance systems in the coming years.
One of the biggest challenges lidar companies have faced is making the sensors inexpensive enough to appeal to cost-conscious automakers. Some early units carried $100,000 price tags, but Keilaf said Innoviz’s newest model, the InnovizTwo, will cost less than $500, a goal some competitors are also targeting.
Before it was able to strike the right combination of cost and performance, Innoviz had a problem to solve: Most lidars tend to emit light at one of two frequencies: 905 nm or 1550 nm. The human eye is more sensitive to lower wavelengths, which means that, with a 905 nm frequency, you increase the risk of damaging the eyes of nearby pedestrians if you make the sensor’s light too powerful. But as you reduce the sensor’s power you diminish its performance. A lidar with a 1550 nm wavelength poses fewer safety concerns but requires bigger and more expensive parts, Keilaf said, which makes it harder to get your lidar to a price an automaker would find acceptable.
Keilaf decided Innoviz needed to figure out how to make a 905 nm lidar that could offer high-end performance without using lightwaves so powerful they created safety issues. Using off-the-shelf parts wouldn’t get the job done, which meant Innoviz had to design many key components itself, a process Keilaf characterized as “a horrible, horrible journey.” (Some of Innoviz’s rivals are using the same approach.)
Taking the hard road paid off, as Innoviz signed a deal with BMW in 2017. Next year, Keilaf said, the German automaker will start putting Innoviz lidar sensors in some of its vehicles, where they will help their driver-assistance systems better understand their surroundings.
Keilaf believes Innoviz’s lidars will be the first ones ready for consumer vehicles and, due to their proprietary design and components, he thinks they will offer an unmatched combination of resolution, range, and precision.
“It’s really a puzzle,” Keilaf said of succeeding in the lidar industry. If you’re missing any big pieces, you can’t win.
“We have it all,” he said.
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