Breakthrough Argo Lidar could be key to Ford and VW's autonomous cars

Ford-backed autonomous vehicle company Argo has announced its own LIDAR sensor, claiming to have cracked the balance between long-range scanning and commercial-ready scale. The Argo Lidar promises what the company believes to be the longest sensing range at over 1,300 feet, despite still supporting nighttime use and high-resolution scanning.

LIDAR – or "Light Detection and Ranging – has become commonplace on autonomous vehicles, for its ability to deliver precise mapping of the area surrounding an AV. It works by firing out pulses of invisible laser light, which bounce off objects and return back to a receiver: by tracking how long that takes, the LIDAR scanner can figure out how far away each object is.

With a large number of pulses, and thus bounces, software can then build up what's known as a 3D point cloud. That effectively maps out other road users, pedestrians, obstacles, and more in the three-dimensional space around the vehicle. Although there are outliers – Elon Musk's Tesla probably being the most conspicuous – most self-driving car projects rely on at least one LIDAR scanner in combination with other sensors.

For Argo, this new homegrown Argo Lidar was based on tech it brought in-house when it acquired Princeton Lightwave back in 2017. The start had developed what it called "Geiger-mode" sensing, not only capable of detecting light down to a single photon, but as a result able to spot objects with exceptionally low reflectivity. The LIDAR also operated at a higher wavelength than usual, meaning higher resolution and longer range.

The result is the Argo Lidar, with a 360-degree field of view and the ability to see the darkest of black-painted vehicles even if it's nighttime and pitch black. It has a range of 400 meters, and can handle sudden transitions from dark to bright light – such as when exiting a tunnel – while also distinguishing small moving objects from static objects.

It'll be "the centerpiece" of what Argo calls its SDS, or Self-Driving System. The company is working with an unnamed contract manufacturer on series production of Argo Lidar, though the first batch of sensors are already being used in the autonomous test fleet. Beyond that, however, Argo has commercial customers in mind.

"Soon," Argo says, "volume production plans with Ford and Volkswagen Group will lead to the widespread commercialization of autonomous delivery and ride hail services."

Ford and VW Group ended up sharing stakes in Argo back in mid-2020, after a $2.6 billion investment deal saw the German automotive behemoth wade in as both a backer and a customer. Though Ford and VW may share some of the eventual underlying technologies, however, each will be implementing it differently according to their own production vehicle strategies.