Executive Briefings

How an Audio Equipment Company Is Leading the Self-Driving Car Revolution

Seconds after David Hall punches in a code, the electronic gate to his waterfront residence swings open. It's a large compound but not the kind you'd expect from a tech entrepreneur who is as responsible as anyone for ushering in the self-driving-car revolution.

Hall, 66, is CEO of Velodyne, the leading maker of LiDAR sensors, the "eyes" that allow autonomous vehicles to see what's around them. He lives among a ramshackle collection of low-slung, shingled and metal structures built around a concrete plot on the Bay Area island town of Alameda, California. It's his favorite refuge, equal parts living quarters and workshop, where this inveterate tinkerer and serial inventor can work on his pet projects.

At one end there's a barn-size industrial shed where Hall and a team of engineers are perfecting one of his latest obsessions: a patented technology that keeps boats steady in the roughest waters. Marta, his wife and the head of business development at Velodyne, paints and sculpts in an art studio nestled inside another building. A couple of his Ford F-150 pickups are parked near a hulking crane that hauls boats in and out of the water. Hall's home itself is a houseboat, or rather a roomy prefab structure bolted onto a barge. From the living room you can hear small waves lapping at the shores of the sleepy canal that separates Alameda from Oakland. It's a world away from the bustle and glitz of Silicon Valley, where Velodyne has its headquarters, and that's the point. "I'm an engineer," the reclusive Hall says, referring to both profession and persona. "I'm basically an introvert, a nerd ahead of my time."

About a decade ahead of his time. In 2006, Hall patented one of his inventions — a multi-beam spinning LiDAR sensor — that put Velodyne, albeit almost accidentally, at the center of a revolution that's disrupting the auto and tech industries. Hall built the LiDAR sensor on a whim. Velodyne, which he had founded in 1983, was a successful business known for specialized audio equipment. But always itching to keep inventing, in the early aughts Hall became obsessed with a seemingly fantastical contest: a Defense Department-sponsored race for autonomous vehicles. It promised to be both fun and an excellent proving ground for his engineering chops. Over a couple of years, Hall refined a roof-mounted LiDAR (for "light distance and ranging") unit consisting of 64 lasers spun by a small electric motor; the device became a favorite of the race's winning teams. "It was revolutionary," says William "Red" Whittaker, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University and a father of the autonomous-vehicle movement.

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Hall, 66, is CEO of Velodyne, the leading maker of LiDAR sensors, the "eyes" that allow autonomous vehicles to see what's around them. He lives among a ramshackle collection of low-slung, shingled and metal structures built around a concrete plot on the Bay Area island town of Alameda, California. It's his favorite refuge, equal parts living quarters and workshop, where this inveterate tinkerer and serial inventor can work on his pet projects.

At one end there's a barn-size industrial shed where Hall and a team of engineers are perfecting one of his latest obsessions: a patented technology that keeps boats steady in the roughest waters. Marta, his wife and the head of business development at Velodyne, paints and sculpts in an art studio nestled inside another building. A couple of his Ford F-150 pickups are parked near a hulking crane that hauls boats in and out of the water. Hall's home itself is a houseboat, or rather a roomy prefab structure bolted onto a barge. From the living room you can hear small waves lapping at the shores of the sleepy canal that separates Alameda from Oakland. It's a world away from the bustle and glitz of Silicon Valley, where Velodyne has its headquarters, and that's the point. "I'm an engineer," the reclusive Hall says, referring to both profession and persona. "I'm basically an introvert, a nerd ahead of my time."

About a decade ahead of his time. In 2006, Hall patented one of his inventions — a multi-beam spinning LiDAR sensor — that put Velodyne, albeit almost accidentally, at the center of a revolution that's disrupting the auto and tech industries. Hall built the LiDAR sensor on a whim. Velodyne, which he had founded in 1983, was a successful business known for specialized audio equipment. But always itching to keep inventing, in the early aughts Hall became obsessed with a seemingly fantastical contest: a Defense Department-sponsored race for autonomous vehicles. It promised to be both fun and an excellent proving ground for his engineering chops. Over a couple of years, Hall refined a roof-mounted LiDAR (for "light distance and ranging") unit consisting of 64 lasers spun by a small electric motor; the device became a favorite of the race's winning teams. "It was revolutionary," says William "Red" Whittaker, a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon University and a father of the autonomous-vehicle movement.

Read Full Article