Ford Speeds Driverless Work With Lidar Stake, Double Staff

  • Automaker, China’s Baidu invest $150 million in sensor firm
  • Laser-based detection a key component to self-driving cars

Ford Motor Co. is doubling the size of its Silicon Valley lab and taking a stake in the leading maker of an advanced radar system to accelerate its development of self-driving cars.

Ford and China’s top search engine company, Baidu Inc., are each investing $75 million in Velodyne Lidar Inc., the automaker said in a statement. Lidar bounces light off objects to assess shape and location, giving self-driving cars a 360-degree view of their environment with the help of cameras and traditional radar. Morgan Hill, California-based Velodyne said the money will help it improve design and expand production, making the sensors more affordable for mass adoption.

Ford is expanding autonomous-car development as it chases Alphabet Inc.’s Google self-driving car project as well as efforts by General Motors Co. and other automakers. Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields is due to address the media at Ford’s Silicon Valley lab later Tuesday. The Palo Alto, California, center will expand its workforce to 260 and will increase sixfold in size to 180,000-square feet over three buildings.

“They want to do as much as they can internally, but also acknowledge that it’s best to partner with those who have the leading technology,” said Jeff Schuster, an analyst at research firm LMC Automotive.

Ford’s latest investment follows a pattern of making modest bets on technology partners as it researches self-driving cars and the so-called sharing economy. In May, the Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker invested $182.2 million to take a stake of about 6.6 percent in Pivotal Software Inc., a cloud-computing company that helped it develop a mobility app. Last month, Ford was among five investors providing $6.6 million in seed funding for Civil Maps, a California startup that creates three-dimensional maps for driverless cars.

“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 executive vice president of product development, said in the statement.

‘More Methodical’

General Motors Co. spent almost $1 billion acquiring self-driving software maker Cruise Automation and invested $500 million for a 9 percent stake in ride-hailing company Lyft Inc. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV has teamed with Google to develop 100 self-driving minivans. Ford conducted unsuccessful negotiations with Google prior to the Chrysler deal.

“Ford is taking a more methodical approach and the risk in that is that they’re potentially perceived as being behind,” analyst Schuster said. “When you’re one of the last to really jump in and when you do so too late, the partners are all gone.”

Since GM announced its acquisition of Cruise Automation in March, the staff at the company has grown to 100 from 40, said Kevin Kelly, a GM spokesman. GM is testing Cruise’s self-driving software on Chevy Bolt electric cars in Scottsdale, Arizona. GM also has a research lab in Palo Alto that employs about 12 people, Kelly said.

“Our goal is to use our autonomous technology in an on-demand ride-sharing network,” Kelly said. “Cruise paired perfectly with Lyft.”

Velodyne said it “expects an exponential increase in lidar sensor deployments” and that it will continue to work with top automotive and ride-sharing companies worldwide.

“We want the cost to be low enough to be used for all cars,” Marta Hall, Velodyne’s president of business development, said in the statement.

Ford’s moves show it is gearing up to become a player in autonomous vehicles, but it has a way to go, Schuster said. “This is still a very small investment,” he said. “To remain on the leading edge of this, we’re likely to see more out of Ford.”

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