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GM buys Strobe, a Pasadena startup that makes crucial tech for self-driving cars

GM buys Strobe, a Pasadena startup that makes crucial tech for self-driving cars
General Motors has bought Strobe, a Pasadena startup that produces the laser-based imaging technology known as lidar. (Stan Honda / AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, General Motors Co. announced plans to release a fleet of new electric vehicles by 2023, laying the groundwork for an "all-electric future."

On Monday, the automotive giant revealed that it has bought Strobe, a Pasadena startup that produces the laser-based imaging technology known as lidar.

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Lidar uses a pulsed laser sensor to measure the distance between objects and is a crucial component of autonomous vehicles' navigation systems.

But the technology's high price, complexity and limited performance has kept self-driving cars from being deployed on a larger scale, according to Kyle Vogt, chief executive of Cruise Automation, a subsidiary developing self-driving technology that GM bought last year.

"To solve these problems we've acquired Strobe, a company that has quietly been building the leading next-generation lidar sensors," Vogt wrote in a blog post announcing the purchase of Strobe.

By collapsing the entire sensor down to a single chip, Vogt added, "we'll reduce the cost of each lidar on our self-driving cars by 99%."

Strobe founder and Chief Executive Julie Schoenfeld said her company and all 11 of its employees will be folded into Cruise, but they will continue to be based in Pasadena.

One potential beneficiary of the deal is Molex, a subsidiary of Koch Industries Inc. Schoenfeld said Molex — which makes electronic and fiber-optic interconnection products and systems — was a strategic investor in Strobe, although she declined to say how much money Molex had invested or how much it will now receive.

Schoenfeld and Vogt declined to disclose the financial terms of the GM-Strobe deal.

Vogt said that his company's mission is to "remove the driver from the vehicle" and that the purchase of Strobe is a "game changer."

In his blog post, Vogt said Strobe's lidar sensors can be coupled with a radar sensor to more accurately read road conditions and avoid wrecks for self-driving cars. Among the challenges for most lidar sensors, he noted, are overcoming the blindness created by the sun reflecting off wet pavement and identifying a person at night who is wearing black and walking on dark pavement, both of which are challenging for the human eye as well.

Another challenge: lowering costs.

"As the cost of our self-driving vehicles declines, we'll be able to accelerate the rate of vehicle production and more quickly roll out our technology to suburban and rural areas where ride sharing is less common today," Vogt said.

GM's decision to invest more heavily in self-driving technology comes on the heels of the company's decision to commit to a future that forgoes fossil fuels. It said last week that it plans to release two new electric models in the next 18 months and at least 18 others by 2023.

GM finished 2016 as the world's third-largest auto-seller, breaking previous company records with 10 million vehicles sold, the company said.

Ray Wert, GM's head of advanced technology communication, said the new fleet of electric vehicles will feature a variety of automotive body styles but will focus on the heart of the current market: "crossovers and SUVs."

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He said that the shift to becoming a "zero emissions" company won't happen overnight but that it's part of a larger goal to play a role in creating a world that has "zero emissions, zero congestion and zero crashes."

"We understand that we could play a huge role in leading the way there," Wert said. "There are a lot of players that need to come to the table if we're going to get to that zero-emissions world. But we're not going to be standing on the sidelines."

Holley writes for the Washington Post. Times staff writer Lauren Raab contributed to this report.

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