NEW YORK – Buckle up because transportation is evolving double quick time. It wasn’t long ago that lane keep assist, approaching object alerts, automatic parallel parking and much more were, at best, concepts in an engineer’s head. Now the next generation of automotive evolution is made possible by the wonders of LiDAR technology. It won’t be long before autonomous driving will be a standard feature on cars. The next generation of automobiles will redefine the driving experience, and investors can participate in the transportation transformation in a variety of ways, including the upcoming public listing of a leading LiDAR company, Cepton Technologies, which aims to go public early this year in a SPAC merger with Growth Capital Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: GCAC) (Profile). Cepton was chosen by General Motors Company (NYSE: GM) as its sole-source provider of lidars for the period 2023–2027, with installation of Cepton-based lidar sensors in as many as nine different models. Cepton is also in various levels of engagement with all top-10 automotive OEMs including Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F). Others in the lidar space, including Luminar Technologies Inc. (NASDAQ: LAZR), are trying to keep pace albeit with production wins representing far fewer number of vehicles. Not all EV manufacturers are opting for LiDAR tech; for example, Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) is a vocal champion for the pure vision-based approach to autonomous driving.
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LiDAR Paving Way to Future of Autonomous Vehicles
Today, most leading-edge vehicles use combinations of sonar (sound) and radar (microwaves) in their warning systems. LiDAR, an acronym for Light Detection and Ranging, is the next major automotive advancement, superior to both sonar and radar for speed, accuracy, range and quality.
Time of flight (ToF) LiDAR, the most popular type, rapidly pulses infrared light off surrounding objects, measuring the light’s reflection time to determine the distance to an object with amazing precision. Working in unison with onboard computers, LiDAR represents the “eyes” of a self-driving vehicle to generate a constantly updating three-dimensional map of the road and surrounding environment to safely maneuver with little to no human input.
According to Fortune Business Insights, the global LiDAR market is growing at a 22.7% annual rate. Driven by deployment into many different applications, the market is forecast to rise from $1.32 billion in 2018 to $6.71 billion by 2026.
To say LiDAR is space-age technology is completely accurate. It was developed by NASA to monitor satellites and measure distances in space before it found its way into the automotive industry where the technology continues to evolve and become miniaturized and less expensive. While still early in the tech’s existence, the possibilities are becoming realities in what LiDAR can do for autonomous driving in the future.
Growth Capital Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: GCAC) is a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC for short, incorporated for the purpose of acquiring an operating company with an enterprise value in the range of $400 million to $1.5 billion. The blank check company found its target late in 2021 in Cepton Technologies, a pioneer in the LiDAR space that made a name for itself with an exclusive deal with General Motors integrating with GM’s vaunted Ultra Cruise ADAS (advanced driver assistance systems). The transaction to make Cepton a public entity trading on the Nasdaq under the ticker CPTN is expected to close early this quarter.
Founded in 2016, Cepton has launched multiple innovative products and become connected with some of the biggest names in the automotive industry, including GM and Tokyo-based global automotive lighting equipment juggernaut Koito Manufacturing. Koito has been a strong partner to Cepton, including a $50 million investment in the startup. Cepton’s mission is to deploy high-performance, mass-market LiDAR to deliver safety and autonomy across multiple industries. In this bid, Cepton brings tier 1 partners, more than 100 active customer projects, engagement with all top-10 original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and more than 160 opportunities in its pipeline.
The World’s Biggest Auto Industry LiDAR Win
Effectively, LiDAR and computer chips serve as the brain of an autonomous vehicle (AV), and obviously it’s no easy task to replicate the speed and precision of a human to input process and react to surroundings in motion. The challenges the LiDAR market faces all relate to performance, reliability, integration, and costs. Cepton was purpose-built to address these hurdles, with the result being an end-to-end LiDAR solution platform including its patented breakthrough Micro Motion Technology (MMT(R)) for ADAS autonomous driving and smart infrastructure applications. MMT is a novel technology of Cepton that uses quartz-crystal-like materials rather than microscopic mirrors of competitors’ MEMS (micro-electro-mechanical-systems) technology, making them less expensive with better performance and low power consumption. Low power consumption is particularly important in electric vehicles where other components are hungry to gobble up battery power.
The technology has been validated by the world’s leading OEMs, developmental use in May Mobility automated shuttles, and through the exclusive adoption of Cepton LiDARs by General Motors for its Ultra Cruise ADAS autonomous driving platform. This marks the largest automotive LiDAR design win to date which is about ten times larger than all other automotive LiDAR awards combined. GM intends to use Cepton LiDARs in up to nine different models starting in 2023. Ultra Cruise is being trumpeted for allowing hands-free driving on surface streets and highways which account for about 95 percent of all roads in North America, a significant advancement from GM’s Super Cruise tech, which is limited to freeway use.
One Million Units on Tap
Cepton’s GM agreement represents not just the first major production customer for the company, it also positions Cepton as what is expected to be the first LiDAR company in the world to go mass market across multiple vehicle platforms. The agreement with GM was made possible through Cepton’s relationship with Koito, which is licensing the MMT technology and integrating it into the automotive sensors that are going into GM vehicles equipped with GM ADAS. The initial term of the contract is specified as four years through 2027.
“We are gratified to partner with Koito and leverage their manufacturing and quality leadership in this pathbreaking series production program, which I believe will set the standard for future ADAS lidar adoption,” said Cepton CEO and cofounder Dr. Jun Pei.
Cepton expects strong uptake from all the major OEM auto manufacturers as well as others in the space because Cepton LiDAR products hit the sweet spot between performance, safety, reliability and cost. To that point, Cepton anticipates shipping more than one million of its LiDAR units by 2025. The company refers to subsequent sales related to integration into multiple platforms as a “flywheel effect,” where embedding into manufacturing ecosystems facilitates mass volume production, which further reduces costs and so on.
Growth Capital Acquisition Corp. is a SPAC with $172.5 million in cash and $58.5 million raised via a private investment in public entity (PIPE) anchored by Koito in support of the Cepton transaction, for approximately $231 million of pro forma cash on the balance sheet. The terms place a pro forma firm value of $1.55 billion on Cepton, which equates to 1.8x 2025 estimated revenue of $861 million.
The breakdown of ownership is 85% existing shareholders, 12% SPAC IPO and founder shares, and 3% PIPE investors. From its headquarters in California, Cepton employs 116 people, including 51 engineers and 21 PhDs focused on developing state-of-the-art, intelligent, LiDAR-based solutions for a range of markets, including automotive, smart cities, smart spaces and smart industrial applications. The initial emphasis is on ADAS, the largest-end market for LiDAR.
Autonomous Vehicles Coming Around the Bend
The world is fast accelerating towards freeways and subdivisions chock full of autonomous vehicles shepherded by hands-free technologies that provide full autonomy. The transportation transformation is fully underway and will be arriving in driveways soon. In fact, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute thinks safe and reliable self-driving cars will arrive in as little as three years. In the coming decades, autonomous vehicles will likely be the new standard of safe, affordable and reliable transportation, completely displacing human driving and delivering incalculable savings and benefits.
General Motors Company (NYSE: GM) unveiled a new personal self-driving electric concept car from its luxury brand, Cadillac, during the recent CES technology show and plans to offer a personal autonomous electric vehicle to consumers as soon as mid-decade. GM will likely use the Cepton lidar to both enhance ADAS capabilities for automatic emergency braking, pedestrian detection and also to enable its upcoming Ultra Cruise system.
Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) last summer was the first to announce a collaboration with Argo AI and Lyft where the three partners began working together to commercialize autonomous ride hailing at scale. The auto giant is active overall in the AV space, including its Self-Driving Research Program designed to help businesses understand how autonomous vehicles could benefit their operations. In December, Ford and DP World London Gateway conducted a trial with a simulated autonomous vehicle to demonstrate how useful such future technology could be to those managing — and employed on — large worksites.
Luminar Technologies Inc. (NASDAQ: LAZR), a provider of LiDAR and associated software, has more than 50 industry partners, and in various stages of engagement with a majority of the top global automotive OEMs. In 2020, Luminar signed the industry’s first production deal for autonomous consumer vehicles with Volvo Cars, which now expects to make Luminar’s technology part of the standard safety package on their next generation electric SUV. Additional customer wins include SAIC, Daimler Truck AG, Intel’s Mobileye, Pony.ai and Airbus UpNext.
Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) announced fourth-quarter numbers, which included the production of more than 305,000 vehicles and deliveries of more than 308,000 vehicles. For the full year, the company delivered more than 936,000 vehicles. In its report, Tesla noted that delivery count should be viewed as slightly conservative because the company only counts a car as delivered if it is transferred to the customer and all paperwork is correct; therefore, final numbers could vary by up to 0.5% or more.
If the Victoria Transport Policy Institute is correct, and the institute seems to be in line with other estimates, self-driving cars are going to be here in what will amount to the blink of an eye. It will be a watershed moment for the industry, AV will be the norm, and youngsters will wonder how and why humans ever drove cars.
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