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Volkswagen has made an investment in Aeva, a start-up that builds vision sensors for self-driving cars. The company claims to have invented a new kind of lidar — a light detection and ranging sensor — that manages to be small and low cost, yet is high performing and consumes little power.

What makes this exciting for EV drivers is that this technology will be used in the ID lineup in the near future. The first Volkswagen that will use Aeva’s lidar is the ID Buzz — a new electric version of its mid-century camper van due out in 2022.

Soroush Salehian, Aeva co-founder, calls that combination the “holy grail” for lidar — a critical technology that works by sending out pulses of light and tracking how long it takes for the pulse to return. This allows a car to know the distance and depth of objects, including cars and pedestrians, resulting in 3D maps.

Typical lidar systems are big pieces of hardware that sit conspicuously on an autonomous car’s roof, spinning rapidly as they send out beams of light to detect their surroundings. Aeva’s lidar, by contrast, has been shrunk into a single chip, has no moving parts, and can be fitted next to a car’s lights.

“A major milestone is putting all the optics on a chip,” said Mina Rezk, Aeva’s other co-founder. “Nobody has been able to put any part of this on a chip before and show that it can go to mass volume.”

Aeva’s bold claims were underlined by Volkswagen, which plans to equip consumer vehicles with the sort of lidar systems that currently cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Alex Hitzinger, head of VW Autonomy, called Aeva’s product “the best lidar solution on the market” and said it solved a fundamental perception problem that has prevented autonomous technology from achieving mass scale.

“When you put lidar components on a chip, it becomes highly scalable,” he said.

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