After Velodyne, its rival in the US, decided to scale back sales in the country at the end of 2019.
Hesai Technology (禾赛科技), a lidar (light detection and ranging) producer in China, announced the closure of its USD 173 million Series C round on Jan 7, navigating the way as China heads towards fully-realized autonomous driving technology.
German tier-1 auto supplier Bosch and Lightspeed China co-led the deal, with another industrial player ON Semiconductor also involved. Hesai’s early-stage investor Lightspeed China stated that it had followed on with USD 50 million in this round, making the venture capital company the biggest institutional investor among the shareholders of Hesai.
According to its website, Hesai’s product mix is comprised of solid-state lidar sensor PandarGT, mechanical lidar Pandar series and an all-in-one sensing kit, ‘Pandora’ (a sensor fusion-focus product).
The company has sold its products to more than 100 autonomous driving and robotics firms in 18 cities and regions globally, 60% of which were exported to Europe and the US. More than half of the companies that have joined the famous autonomous driving race in California, are using Hesai’s lidar sensors to test cars, the company has said. With such business growth, Hesai said that it has achieved positive profit margins continuously for two years.
While China has shown its ambitions in researching Autonomous Vehicles (AV), local firms are struggling to find their suppliers within the Asian behemoth, so they have to turn to overseas companies. For instance, Baidu and Pony.ai are using California-based Velodyne’s lidar sensors. In 2015, 85% of the cars participating in an intelligent vehicle event held in Changshu, China, relied on lidar sensors from Velodyne.
However, Velodyne had expected no new big customers in China before it decided to scale back its local team sharply at the end of 2019.
On the other hand, as China is eager to have its indigenous technology to win in this driverless game, we have seen an array of lidar startups that are set to be next generation of giants emerging on the horizon. RoboSense, another notable name in the industry, is backed by Chinese OEMs BAIC and SAIC. Others include early-stage player ZVISION Technologies Co., Ltd, focusing on solid-state lidar sensors.
So far there are two main approaches to AV perception – either sonar and cameras or lidar augmentation, according to McKinsey. Lidar technology allows the AV to ‘see’ the surroundings: a lidar channel sends out laser beams, then, as it senses the light bouncing back, the software produces a 360-degree real-time map.
Though a swath of auto companies like TuSimple and Tesla are attached to camera-focused solutions, the mainstream in the industry sees lidar as an indispensable part.
The founder of ZVISION, Shi Tuo (石拓), holds the opinion that fully autonomous driving technology needs the engagement of lidar, making the lidar approach a certain part of the future in his eyes. “Waymo needs to ensure one hundred percent safety for passengers (if it is going to launch level 5 Robotaxi business) while Tesla takes less responsibility (coming under the situation of level 2 or level 3 autonomous driving),” Shi said.