By Stephen Nellis
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Aeva Inc, a startup company founded by former Apple Inc engineers Soroush Salehian and Mina Rezk, has signed a sensor-system deal with an Audi-owned unit that is working on self-driving technology for Volkswagen AG.
Aeva said on Wednesday that Audi's AID-Autonomous Intelligent Driving unit, a “center of excellence” for Volkswagen autonomous driving efforts, will be using its lidar sensor on its so-called "e-tron" development fleet vehicles in Munich, Germany.
The lidar units help give cars a three-dimensional view of the road. Audi's AID said it will use the sensors to help develop its so-called robo-taxis, which aim to autonomously ferry passengers around urban areas in the next few years.
Aeva last year raised $45 million in venture funding led by Lux Capital and Canaan.
Alexandre Haag, AID's chief technology officer, told Reuters in an interview that his unit was drawn to Aeva's technology because it can generate a 3-D map of the environment around a vehicle, as well as measure the velocity of objects around the car in real time.
That could help the sensor spot things like a pedestrian darting out between two cars, Haag said.
"If anything moves, it's something that you need to pay attention to," he said.
Aeva's sensor can measure the velocity of objects because it differs from most lidar units now being tested on the road.
Many lidar units send powerful laser bursts and measure their intensity after they bounce off the road and come back to the sensor. Aeva's unit instead sends out a lower-powered continuous wave and measures its frequency when it returns. Montana-based startup Blackmore is working on similar continuous wave technology.
Rezk said the lower power requirements mean Aeva can make its sensors in the same factories as traditional semiconductors, which will help lower the cost of the units in the future. Current lidar units from others can cost as much as $100,000, a figure automakers are hoping to reduce.
"We can integrate a lot of these optical components on the silicon level," Rezk told Reuters. "It is designed for mass scale."
Aeva and AID would not disclose the financial terms of the deal or how much the sensors currently cost, but Haag said the automaker believes "there's a path to the right cost for us," with Aeva's sensor.
"Cost is very dependent on volume," he said. "So it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, but that's where we can be the chicken, in the sense that we have the potential to scale."
(Reporting by Stephen Nellis; Editing by Susan Thomas)