Hesai Technology Co-Founder and CEO David Li
By David Li
Hesai Technology was founded on the dream of improving road safety for everyone by building high quality, affordable lidars that could be a part of every vehicle’s safety system. Two college friends, Kai and Shao, and I came up with the idea for Hesai in Silicon Valley in 2013. The name “Hesai” was a twist on the pronunciation of “Jose” in “San Jose,” where our dream started. This was inspired by tech giant Cisco taking its name from “San Francisco,” which we thought was a cool way to name a company. Educated and working in the fields of robotics and lasers, we quit our jobs to build a laser sensor company. After systematically surveying various industrial markets for laser sensors, we felt that lidar – an acronym for “light detection and ranging” – was poised to become the next big thing in advanced driver assistance systems.
Lidars are the eyes of future robots, from autonomous cars to autonomous guided vehicles in factories. They send out low-intensity lasers that bounce off objects and create a 3D view of a vehicle’s surroundings. The vehicle’s brain, a computer, uses the 3D images to make driving decisions more safely than it could by using cameras only.
We weren’t the first to think about building lidars. There were already other players in the field trying to build lidars for different applications. But most of them had the same problem – they were way too expensive, bulky and difficult to make. To become something that could be widely used in everyday life, the cost and complexity had to come down. For example, some of the high-performance lidars cost up to $100,000 and took months to deliver. In our view, if this technology could not be manufactured affordably, it would be limited to a small minority of customers. Instead, we wanted to design and build lidars that are affordable, high performance, aesthetically pleasing and easy to manufacture quickly to bring their safety advantage to everyone.
To do that, we first needed to analyze the overall cost of our lidar, which consists of hundreds of components from suppliers from around the world. We quickly realized that relying solely on off-the-shelf components would never achieve the cost and performance level we needed because those components were not designed for lidars. So we built our own team to design and own the majority of our components using semiconductor processes. As a result, we reduced our supplier numbers by more than 80 percent and reduced our components cost by more than 90 percent. This level of control over the design and manufacturing process ensures two key points: that data security is hard-wired into our lidars, and that they are purpose-built for use in passenger cars and other civilian vehicles.
The other issue was manufacturing. Due to their complicated design, lidar manufacturing had relied on human labor, resulting in a costly and long process. We took a completely different approach: we designed our lidars to be made in automated assembly lines, completely reinventing how lidars are designed and manufactured. We were inspired by Henry Ford, who did not invent the automobile but the cost-efficient mass production of the automobile. Now that our manufacturing facilities are more than 90 percent automated, we can produce an affordable new lidar unit every 45 seconds, by far the best rate in the industry.
Improving safety on the roads is what truly drives us to achieve the goal of producing affordable, high performing sensors to enhance the safety of intelligent driving systems. From seat belts to airbags to sensors, automotive safety has come a long way in a few decades. Lidar is the next step. We think of our lidars as the “invisible airbags” of all cars in the future. The difference is that airbags protect vehicle occupants after a collision; lidars help prevent the collision from ever happening. In this way, lidars not only protect vehicle occupants, they protect everything around a vehicle – including passengers in nearby vehicles, cyclists, pedestrians and pets.
To maximize safety, lidars are best used with other sensors, including cameras, because lidars have capabilities that cameras do not. Lidars can see in low light, no light and poor weather conditions.
The first use for lidars is in robotaxis – fully autonomous vehicles already on city streets in the U.S. and around the world. At the same time, global automakers will be integrating advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) into their vehicles in the next two to three years. These systems will include a host of components, including cameras, sensors, improved computer processing and mapping – and Hesai lidars. These are the vehicles coming to car dealerships near you.
This is why, from the beginning, we saw Hesai as a global company. Like us, many Silicon Valley companies have had an idea for a life-improving technology that could help people around the world. We build winning products that are high performance, high quality and cost effective. If you can do this at scale – and this is particularly true for hardware, as compared to software – then everyone can enjoy the benefits, and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel in every country.
With superior lidar designs and automated high-quality manufacturing, we have quickly become the global leader, shipping more than 200,000 automotive lidar units; 87,000 in the first half of this year alone. We are heavily focused on the U.S., with U.S. suppliers and investors. Our February IPO was backed by Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. (NASDAQ: “HSAI”) Our American customers include AI giant NVIDIA, and autonomous vehicle technology companies Aurora, Nuro and Zoox. Just nine years after our founding, Hesai has become the global leader with 47 percent of the market share in automotive lidars.
Hesai was born with a Silicon Valley name and an American mindset. America is one of the most important markets in the automotive industry and the birthplace of car culture. As we put Hesai lidars into automakers’ ADAS designs, millions more will enjoy the safety benefits our lidars provide. As a fan and owner of American cars and trucks, I want Hesai lidars to be a key contributor in keeping American roads safe in this next great American automotive century.