Germany’s Infineon Seeks to Put Moon-Mapping Tech in Your Car

  • Chipmaker buys Dutch Lidar laser technology company Innoluce
  • Infineon vows to cut cost of Lidar to supply mass market

Infineon Technologies AG wants to put the technology Apollo 15 astronauts used to map the moon’s surface into everyday cars to make them safer -- and spur sales of its chips to the automobile industry.

Infineon is working to bring down the cost of the Lidar technology, which uses laser beams to detect a car’s surroundings hundreds of feet ahead, to less than $100 in five years from about $500 to $1,000 today, said Gregor Rodehueser, a company spokesman. This week, the Neubiberg, Germany-based chipmaker bought Innoluce BV, a spin-off of Royal Philips NV based in Nijmegen, Netherlands, that specializes in the technology.

“We intend to make Lidar an affordable feature for every new-built car worldwide,” says Peter Schiefer, who heads Infineon’s automotive division, which generated 2.35 billion euros ($2.59 billion) in sales last year.

The deal is part of Infineon’s push into the growing auto chip market that provides fresh revenue streams as demand for semiconductors used in smartphones and tablets slows. The small Innoluce acquisition -- the company has less than 10 employees -- means Infineon will be able to provide all three sensor technologies used in so-called self-driving cars.

It’s already offering radar and camera sensors, a combination used by Tesla Motors Inc. Infineon says self-driving cars will need all three systems installed to provide an effective safety "cocoon" for vehicles -- as each system has its drawbacks and advantages.

Lidar can also boost road safety when humans are at the wheel, Infineon says. The technology first rose to prominence during the Apollo 15 mission in 1971, when astronauts used a laser altimeter to map the surface of the moon. While Lidar has since been built into Google’s self-driving car, it hasn’t yet caught on in the mass market because the technology, which can create a 3D map of a car’s surroundings, remains bulky and expensive.

Infineon says it can change that by making the currently mechanical scanning mirrors semiconductor-based to reduce their size and complexity. The company has in the past cut the size and cost of radar sensors, which are now used in everyday products such as smartwatches and radios.

Infineon seeks to demonstrate a prototype in the first quarter of next year and targets mass production in 2020, it said.

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