It’s been less than two months since General Motors announced its acquisition of Lidar developer Strobe Inc., and in that time the Pasadena, CA, startup has gone from virtual obscurity to being a driving force in the automated-vehicle segment.

Strobe co-founder and chief researcher Lute Maleki, an atomic physicist who pioneered much of the sensor technology purchased by GM for an undisclosed amount, explains the company's meteoric rise as the difference between car radio signals.

Other developers’ technology “is like AM radio,” Maleki says during an interview with WardsAuto. “Our technology is like the FM radio, and that’s not just an analogy, that’s absolutely correct, physically speaking.

“In the case of AM radio, you do amplitude modulation, detect the amplitude, change the amplitude, the intensity,” he says. With FM radio, the frequency of a signal is changed and is “much clearer, much less noisy and yet its range is longer, for the same power. Our technology is like that, whereas everything else that’s on the market currently is like the AM radio because they do amplitude and intensity detection.”

Lidar is an acronym for “light detection and ranging,” “light imaging, detection and ranging” or “light radar,” depending on whom you ask.

A study released in September by analyst IHS Markit shows automotive Lidar system revenues will reach an estimated $2.5 billion in 2026, compared with $230 million in 2016. Further, Lidar semiconductor revenues are expected to hit $1.8 billion in 2026, up from $103 million in 2016.

With the Strobe purchase announcement in early October, GM also indicated it was folding the outfit’s 12-member engineering team into subsidiary Cruise Automation, which recently unveiled plans for “the world’s first mass-producible car designed with the redundancy and safety requirements necessary to operate without a driver,” according to a company statement.

Kyle Vogt, Cruise’s founder and CEO, claims in the same release that “Strobe’s Lidar technology will significantly improve the cost and capabilities of our vehicles so that we can more quickly accomplish our mission to deploy driverless vehicles at scale.”

Commercial Lidar units, such as those sold by Quanergy, calculate the distance between a sensor source and a target – presumably another car or something else in the road ahead – by measuring the delay between the burst of a laser pulse and the reception of its reflection.

Vogt says on his Cruise Automation blog that the Strobe technology, which Maleki and his team designed to fit on a single chip, is expected to “reduce the cost of each Lidar on our self-driving cars by 99%.”

Although GM hasn’t offered any other specs about the sensors it’s developing with Strobe’s input, engineering publication IEEE Spectrum reported earlier this year it had obtained a document prepared for a foreign trade delegation in which Strobe claimed to have a $100 prototype Lidar with a 984-ft. (300-m) range and a processing time of fewer than 45 milliseconds.

Other Lidar technologies “lack two significant features: one is performance, the range being long enough, the resolution being high enough and the ability to detect speed directly,” says Meleki, who spent nearly three decades as a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory before establishing laser research startup OEWaves, which spun off Strobe in 2014.