Düsseldorf The Hamburg lidar manufacturer Ibeo landed the largest order in the company’s history. The Chinese car manufacturer Great Wall Motor commissions the company to produce lidar sensors that are intended to enable automated driving at level 3. At this level, it is possible, for example, to let vehicles drive independently on the highway for a long time.

In addition to radar and camera, most experts consider the lidar sensor to be one of the three essential detection systems for autonomous vehicles. They work similarly to radars, except that laser beams are emitted instead of radio waves.

Ibeo makes no statements regarding the order volume. However, the order is said to be one of the largest series production orders worldwide, which have so far been concluded in the lidar sector. Great Wall Motor will use the Ibeo sensors in vehicle models that are scheduled to go into series production in 2022.

“For Ibeo, the cooperation is an important milestone with which we are further expanding our global technology leadership in the lidar sector,” says Ibeo boss Ulrich Lages. “We are the first supplier in China to use Lidar sensors to enable automated driving at level 3 in a production vehicle.”

Lages founded the company in 1998. In 2016, the supplier ZF secured 40 percent of the shares in Ibeo. A year later, the company developed a lidar sensor in collaboration with the French supplier Valeo, which Audi installed in its luxury class vehicles A8, A7 and A6. It is the first lidar sensor to be used in a production vehicle. Ibeo now has 450 employees. The goodwill is estimated at 200 to 300 million euros.

New assistants

The current order from Great Wall Motor has a signal effect for the lidar industry. Because it confirms a trend in the field of autonomous driving. Instead of developing sensors for the highest level of autonomy, at which the human driver becomes superfluous, the focus in the automotive industry is currently on advanced driver assistance systems for which less complex lidar sensors are required.

The advantage: The prices for sensors that enable level 3 functions are significantly lower and therefore more suitable for series production. Lidar manufacturers like Ibeo can use them to make money promptly. That is not the case with any lidar manufacturer in the world. So far, lidar technology has been a promise.

The industry had spent too long developing sensors for the highest levels of autonomy. However, the hurdles in the development of fully autonomous robot cars are higher than originally thought. For the correspondingly expensive sensors, there are therefore no near-series applications. With the advent of Level 3 assistants, that changes.

More and more car manufacturers want to introduce such assistance systems in the coming years. This opens up completely new growth opportunities for the lidar sector. “We expect the first vehicles with Level 2 plus to come onto the market in 2022,” Ibeo partner Mario Brumm told Handelsblatt in February this year. “From this level, sales of lidar sensors should also increase significantly.”

ZF is thinking about getting out

For the current order, Ibeo is said to have now commissioned the management consultancy Deloitte to look for further investors who would support the company financially in expanding the production facilities required for this.

The supplier ZF is apparently not willing to do this and, according to Reuters, is willing to sell its 40 percent share. From industry circles, however, it is said that ZF is not planning a complete exit. The foundation group continues to believe in lidar technology, since it is foreseeable that demand will increase.

But investments in lidar manufacturers like Ibeo have not yet paid off. Despite the order from Great Wall Motor and the increasing introduction of level 3 functions, Ibeo reports negative cash flows according to the Reuters news agency – and experts say that nothing will change in the next three years.

More: Many lidar start-ups are on the brink because the self-driving car is a long time coming. Traditional automotive suppliers could benefit from this.