Ford-backed Argo sees new sensor as key for self-driving cars

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The drive toward commercialized robotaxis has slowed in recent years after high-profile crashes and the death of a woman in Arizona who was struck by a self-driving test vehicle operated by Uber Technologies Inc. The pandemic further delayed planned launches of the technology, including from Ford, which pushed back its commercialization by a year. But Argo’s innovation may help speed up progress.

Its lidar’s range is about 100 meters greater than current technology, which could enable driverless vehicles to travel at speeds of 65 miles per hour or more, said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst with researcher Guidehouse Insights, which just rated Argo among the leaders in self-driving development.

“It gives them potentially a very significant performance advantage over a lot of the competition,” said Abuelsamid, who reviewed the specifications of Argo’s lidar. “The level of performance that they’re potentially going to be getting from this gives them a lot richer information.”

Claims of superior vision down the road are common among self-driving startups, especially from well-funded players like Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, Amazon Inc.-backed Aurora Innovation Inc. and TuSimple Holdings Inc., the San Diego-based autonomous trucking firm that just raised $1.35 billion in an initial stock offering. But extended vision relies on cameras, which can be limited by snow, fog and darkness, Abuelsamid said.

“Others talk about being able to see things at 1,000 meters, but that’s with cameras,” Abuelsamid said. “Cameras are great when it’s light out. When there’s no light, then your cameras aren’t so great.”

Seeing dark things –- such as cars with black paint jobs –- also has stymied traditional lidar, but Argo’s system uses a technology known as “Geiger mode” capable of detecting as little as the smallest particle of light: a single photon. The company said that enables its lidar to identify dark objects four football fields away with near-photographic accuracy.

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