General Motors selects Cepton to supply Lidar for 2023 production

San Jose-based Cepton is one of the less talked about lidar vendors in the auto industry, but as part of an SEC filing for its plan to go public through a SPAC merger with Growth Capital Acquisition, it has revealed its first major production customer. Beginning in 2023, General Motors GM -1.1% is planning to start installing Cepton-based lidar sensors in as many as nine different models. 

Founded in 2016, Cepton developed an early relationship with Japanese lighting supplier Koito and that company has been an investor in the startup. Like several other lidar suppliers, Cepton is licensing its technology to Koito with the more established company actually integrating that intellectual property into automotive grade sensors and supplying it to GM. Aeye, another Bay area lidar startup that went public earlier this summer has a similar deal with Continental with the German company supplying sensors to an automaker starting in 2024. 

One of the first publicly known development programs to use Cepton’s lidar was Ann Arbor, Mich.-based May Mobility. May used lidars from Cepton, Leddertech and Velodyne on its first-generation automated shuttles. Its recently introduced second-generation platform is now using long-range lidar from Velodyne and short-range sensors from Ouster. 

Cepton has a unique take on solid-state lidar unlike that from any other supplier. One of the key differentiating features of the various solid state solutions is the laser beam steering mechanism. The most commonly used approach is micro-electro-mechanical-systems (MEMS) which effectively uses microscopic mirrors on a chip to direct the laser pulses across the sensors field of view. Aeye, Innoviz and many others use MEMS. 

Cepton uses something called micro-motion technology (MMT). The company has shared few details on MMT, but based on what it has said, the closest analog would something like quartz crystal that is used in watches and clocks. When energized with electricity, the crystal vibrates at a known frequency which is used to drive the timepiece. Similarly, MMT has something that vibrates to direct the laser pulses in a known direction. The result is claimed to be a very robust and low-cost solution for automotive lidar. 

In demonstrations on the road, Cepton lidar sensors are able to get reflections from other vehicles more than 200 meters away. Unlike Luminar and Aeye which use more expensive 1550 nm lasers that are considered eye-safe, the Cepton lidar uses the lower cost 905 nm wavelength that can cause eye damage if the pulses are too powerful so they have to be limited.

Combined with the fixed scan pattern, 200 m is likely to be the upper useful limit for detection. Cepton quotes the range of its Vista P60 sensor at 200 m for a target with 30% reflectivity while the Vista X90 can detect 10% reflective targets at the same distance. For comparison, the Aeye 4Sight sensor can detect vehicles at up to 1,000 m while Argo AI’s new lidar can detect 3% reflective targets at 250 m and 10% targets at 400 m. As a result 905 nm lidars are less likely to be used for highly automated level 4 automated driving that is designed for highway speeds. 

However, GM is likely to be using the Cepton lidar to both enhance ADAS capabilities for automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection and also to enable its upcoming Ultra Cruise system. GM hasn’t revealed any details about Ultra Cruise capabilities, but it is expected to be a so-called level 3 (L3) system that enables a vehicle to drive in the lane and follow other vehicles at a safe distance without the driver having to continuously supervise as they do with current hands-free L2 systems like Super Cruise. 

Since the driver can look away from the road using an L3 system, increased sensing redundancy is required to ensure fail operational capability until the driver can re-engage. Other L3 systems that have been announced by Honda and Mercedes-Benz are also using lidar to augment the cameras and radar. 

In the S-4 document filed with the SEC, Cepton states that the discussions with GM began in 2019 and originally included four vehicles, a number that was subsequently increased to nine including both internal combustion and electric vehicles. The GM program covers production from 2023 to 2027 although no actual production purchase orders have been issued yet. It’s possible that GM could delay or even cancel the program. 

In addition to GM, Cepton has been working with Ford, supplying lidar sensors for ADAS research and development and smart cities efforts. It’s likely that Ford is also developing a follow-on to its upcoming BlueCruise hands-free system that would incorporate lidar and Cepton is likely one of several suppliers being evaluated. 

Ford has also been working on smart sensor pods to install at urban intersections that utilize cameras, radar and lidar as well as cellular-vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) communications to alert approaching vehicles to potential hazards. Sensor pods using Cepton lidar were first tested in Saline, Mich. in fall 2020 and several have been installed in Miami since spring 2021 for testing with the Argo AI automated vehicle fleet. 

In the next year or two, numerous manufacturers will start deploying lidar in production vehicles in addition to the aforementioned Honda and Mercedes-Benz. These include Volvo, Lucid, BMW, Xpeng, SAIC, Faraday Future and many others. The sensors being used will vary in capability from low-cost flash lidar to the more advanced long-range lidars from Luminar and Aeye with prices ranging from under $200 to the high hundreds of dollars, but virtually all aiming to come in under $1,000.