The battle is heating up between Tesla and its Chinese challenger Xpeng as the latter makes clearer its stance on the future of autonomous driving. Over the weekend, Xpeng, which counts Xiaomi and Alibaba among its investors, announced that it will be using lidar sensors from Livox, a startup with close ties to the Chinese drone giant DJI.
The choice of remote sensing technology lidar and a Chinese supplier reflects the complexities of the U.S.-China tech war. Tesla filed a lawsuit in 2019 against Dr. Cao Guangzhi alleging that the former Tesla engineer stole trade secrets related to its Autopilot driver assistance feature and brought them to Xiaopeng Motors, which is also known as Xmotors or Xpeng. While the Chinese electric vehicle maker isn’t a named party in the lawsuit, Tesla has implicated that the company used the source code. XPeng has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing. Guangzhi no longer works at Xpeng.
In a turn that surprises some industry experts, Xpeng said it will be adding lidar to its mass-produced autonomous cars in 2021, a strategy that would differentiate it from Tesla. Having seen Xpeng’s announcement, Elon Musk scoffed that Xpeng lacks Tesla’s technology.
Musk has long dismissed the use of lidar in autonomous driving, calling the technology “expensive sensors that are unnecessary.” Instead, Tesla relies on neural network training and camera-enabled visual recognition for its autonomous vehicles. Some Chinese players agree with Musk’s vision. Daimler-backed Momenta, for instance, is betting on less expensive millimeter-wave radars and high-definition cameras.
Xpeng already utilizes several sources to collect data: camera, millimeter-wave radar and ultrasonic, among other sensors. The addition of lidar, it says, will “provide a greater level of safety redundancy,” which allows a self-driving car to continue operating even when the primary system component fails, “by allowing more accurate imaging of the road situation.” Lidar will also “enhance target detection, measurement accuracy, performance in low ambient light and other challenging perception conditions,” the company claims.
The choice of Livox is also intriguing. There are mature foreign options such as Velodyne and Luminar, but Xpeng’s pick is expected given the Chinese government’s push for technological autonomy in key industries. In China, Livox faces some strong opponents like Hesai, which is backed by Bosch and Chinese search giant Baidu, and Robosense, which has fundings from state-backed carmakers BAIC and SAIC.
Livox itself was founded as an “independent company” in 2016 through DJI’s internal incubation program, according to the startup’s own description. One of its selling points has been to lower the price point of lidar, which the company claims is made possible by its unique optoelectronic scanning method.
The foray into autonomous driving is fitting as DJI has been pivoting to B2B businesses like agriculture drones. But the giant’s relationship with the lidar startup remains mystic, at least from the public viewpoint. Livox’s company boilerplate states it is “backed by DJI’s deep expertise in sensor innovation and hardware manufacturing” and its products are sold through DJI’s official retail store. Other than that, it hasn’t addressed whether DJI holds any equity in it or has controlling power over its management.
As it turns out, Livox is “just a team within DJI, which was later positioned as a separate company” while enjoying access to DJI resources, including manufacturing and supply chain “just like another product brand,” a person with knowledge of the matter told TechCrunch.
One possible motive for Livox’s deliberate distancing from DJI is to avoid potential scrutiny from the U.S. government, which sees lidar as a key area in the tech war with China, the person said. DJI was recently added to the U.S. government’s trade blacklist, which has sanctioned other Chinese tech titans like Huawei and SenseTime from accessing key components from U.S. suppliers. Frank Wang, founder and chief executive of DJI, is also believed to want less public attention.
Livox and DJI couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.