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Intel is developing its silicon photonics technology platform with a view to applications in automotive lidar. Jonathan Doylend from the Santa Clara chip giant addressed a packed session of the Silicon Photonics XV conference Tuesday, saying that the technology was at “exactly the right moment” in its evolution to help make autonomous vehicles a reality. Doylend explained that while a camera-only system made autonomous driving possible – in 2017, Intel acquired Mobileye for $15 billion – for truly “superhuman” driving capability it was necessary to have two independent systems capable of driving the car, thus minimizing the potential for errors. Running through the different lidar options, Doylend said that although the more conventional time-of-flight systems could use existing optics and photonic components, they had a number of issues. Those include requiring high peak power laser pulses to work at long ranges, being prone to cross-talk, and the inability to make direct velocity measurements. The emerging alternative is frequency- modulated continuous-wave (FMCW) lidar, where a chirped laser signal generates a direct velocity measurements using the Doppler effect. The downside of FMCW lidar is that it demands some pretty complicated optics and relies on a narrow-linewidth laser. “Enter silicon photonics,” Doylend told attendees, detailing some of the work that Intel has done so far to be able to deliver an entirely chip-based FMCW system. The company’s hybrid silicon laser, made by bonding indium phosphide material to a silicon-on-insulator wafer and emitting at 1310nm, is key to making that happen. Building on Intel’s initial targeting of optical communications applications, where it has now shipped some 3 million transceivers, Intel’s Silicon Photonics Products Division has worked to integrate the emitter element with a combination of beam-splitters, optical amplifiers, and photodetectors needed to produce a workable, all-chip lidar transmitter. With what Doylend indicated was a large team of people working on the technology at the company, Intel’s developers have shown the ability to boost the chirped laser output to 100mW, alongside strong reliability and stability characteristics.

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