Leuven technology at the forefront of the race for self-driving cars
Google, Uber and all the major German car manufacturers have already visited Xenomatix, which has the essential technology in house to make cars drive autonomously. The Leuven scale-up partners with the Italian billion-dollar company Marelli and raises 10 million euros in fresh capital.
‘No, the self-driving car is far from dead. Only the hype about the most extreme version of it, the robot taxi, is over. ‘ Filip Geuens, the engineer who founded Xenomatix in 2015, is certain: ‘The fully autonomous car is taking longer than hoped, but it will come one day. Not with a big bang, but through different stages of automation. All over the world, tech and car companies, both start-ups and large manufacturers, are working on technologies that pave the way to an ever more independent driving car. ‘
Geuens, who was chief technology officer for Nikon Metrology (formerly Metris) from 2010 and 2015, sees Xenomatix as one of those companies. The Leuven scale-up, which employs 35 people, has been developing a sophisticated and hyper-performing version of a lidar since 2005, a device that emits and receives infrared laser pulses. For example, it can measure the distance to surrounding objects in milliseconds. “Lidars are essential in the development of the self-driving car, because they also work at night and in worse weather conditions,” says Geuens. “They are much more accurate than the cameras and radars in many cars.”
A lidar module from Xenomatix scans the entire environment in real time, around the car and 30 degrees high. The resulting instant 3D scan of the environment is refreshed 25 times per second. Pits, thresholds and objects, curbs and road markings, nothing escapes the electronic eye. Not even the road relief. The system can distinguish concrete, asphalt, sand, water, road markings and grass. Even in the dark or in poor visibility, which the current technology of Tesla and the major German brands cannot. Up to 200 meters far, enough to stop the car in time at 120 kilometers per hour.
Lidars are essential for the self-driving car, as they also work at night and in worse weather conditions.
Lidars have been around for years, but those from Xenomatix are only a bank card in size and can soon be built into a bumper, windscreen or headlight. ‘Lasers are typically energy guzzlers. Not ideal for cars, especially if they run on batteries. Because they constantly have to scan the environment, they are also full of moving parts, which makes them susceptible to wear and tear. Our lidar is made up of low-power lasers, of which up to 25,000 fit on a silicon chip of a stamp size. This makes them more energy efficient. Because they work without moving parts, they are also more reliable, more compact and cheaper. ‘
This makes the company far ahead, according to Geuens. “We are in the top five of companies worldwide that develop lidars for the automotive industry.” This convinced Marelli, an Italian supplier who mainly supplies German car manufacturers with headlights, to conclude an agreement to prepare the technology for mass production together with Xenomatix.
Just like the more famous Bosch and Continental, Marelli, with a turnover of 14 billion euros and 60,000 employees, supplies directly to the car manufacturers. Its headlights, dashboard technology, transmission boxes and heating and air-conditioning systems can be found in about 10 percent of the world’s cars, mainly German, but also in Ford and General Motors. By not limiting itself to Marelli, Xenomatix hopes to be on 40 percent of the market in a few years.
Xenomatix still needs a lot of research and development to meet the quality standards and the price level of series production. ‘Marelli will be sending a fleet of cars with our technology onto the track on three continents.’ To co-finance this, Xenomatix itself raises 10 million euros. That capital comes from the Leuven investment fund Capricorn, the investment division of BNP Paribas Fortis and seven smaller investors. Geuens hopes to do a much larger B capital round by the end of this year.
Can Xenomatix, with a turnover of 3 million euros, ever reach the same level as the successful, listed car chip builder Melexis? ‘Once we have broken through to series production, we hope to play in those regions, yes.’
In the meantime, Xenomatix also developed a scanning module to accurately measure the quality of the road surface. This application, a kind of Google Street View of the road surface, has already been fully developed. ‘We are in full negotiation with governments in France, Japan, Australia and the US. One day both applications will come together in a kind of crowdsourcing: consumers drive around and feed the government database with data on the state of the road. ‘
The long way to the robot car
‘My car, my freedom’ has long been the motto of young people. ‘Today the smartphone is their freedom,’ says Filip Geuens of Xenomatix. That is why, according to the engineer, car manufacturers are increasingly interested in making products that do not involve a driver.
The journey to such a robot car will take a steep track, along five levels of driver assistance systems with increasing intelligence, according to the ADA (advanced driver assistance) scale. At the highest level 5, cars without a driver drive from point A to point B. ‘We are far from there yet. Many new car models already have technology that corrects the steering wheel when the car deviates from the lane (lane assistance), automatically makes an emergency stop or automatically adjusts the speed to that of the vehicle in front (adaptive cruise control). We call that level 2. ‘
‘In level 3 -‘ eyes off ‘- the car steers independently, without the driver having to keep his eyes on the road and his hands on the steering wheel. In level 4 – ‘mind off’ – he can even take a nap. ‘
Not only consumers, but also governments, who see the number of road casualties due to smartphone use increase, see the benefit of this automation. ‘Sooner or later, mandatory regulations, such as those that already exist for CO2 emissions, will be introduced,’ Geuens thinks. “The Chinese have already enacted that half of all cars must be at ADA level 3 by 2025.”