David Hall, CEO of Velodyne, created what is probably the most important piece of technology in the self-driving vehicle business, LiDAR. Short for “light distance and ranging,” LiDAR is found on all the automated vehicles you have seen. The sensor tells the vehicles’ brains about their surroundings, giving them the data they need to react.
In a Forbes profile, written by Alan Ohnsman, the story of how a DARPA contest drove Hall to build LiDAR is explained.
At one end there’s a barn-size industrial shed where Hall and a team of engineers are perfecting one of his latest obsessions: a patented technology that keeps boats steady in the roughest waters. Marta, his wife and the head of business development at Velodyne, paints and sculpts in an art studio nestled inside another building. A couple of his Ford F-150 pickups are parked near a hulking crane that hauls boats in and out of the water. Hall’s home itself is a houseboat, or rather a roomy prefab structure bolted onto a barge. From the living room you can hear small waves lapping at the shores of the sleepy canal that separates Alameda from Oakland. It’s a world away from the bustle and glitz of Silicon Valley, where Velodyne has its headquarters, and that’s the point. “I’m an engineer,” the reclusive Hall says, referring to both profession and persona. “I’m basically an introvert, a nerd ahead of my time.”
In 2006, Hall patented one of his inventions–a multi-beam spinning LiDAR sensor–that put Velodyne, albeit almost accidentally, at the center of a revolution that’s disrupting the auto and tech industries. Hall built the LiDAR sensor on a whim. Velodyne, which he had founded in 1983, was a successful business known for specialized audio equipment. But always itching to keep inventing, in the early aughts Hall became obsessed with a seemingly fantastical contest: a Defense Department-sponsored race for autonomous vehicles. It promised to be both fun and an excellent proving ground for his engineering chops. Over a couple of years, Hall refined a roof-mounted LiDAR (for “light distance and ranging”) unit consisting of 64 lasers spun by a small electric motor; the device became a favorite of the race’s winning teams. “It was revolutionary,” says William “Red” Whittaker, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University and a father of the autonomous-vehicle movement.
The races, known as the DARPA Challenges, became the Big Bang event for self-driving cars, and Hall’s LiDAR forever changed Velodyne from a modest family-run business into a hot commodity: a 34-year-old startup whose technology is remaking transportation and robotics. Today Velodyne is the top supplier of advanced automotive LiDAR and sells its sensors to virtually every auto and tech company that’s building or testing autonomous vehicles. GM, Ford, Uber and China’s Baidu are big buyers, and even Caterpillar uses Velodyne’s tech for gargantuan robotic mining trucks. Google has been a major customer for years, though it’s also making its own sensors. No company other than Velodyne produces comparable units in sufficient quantities to meet the growing demand.
Read more here.