Nice summary of LIDAR technologies -- is it a "crutch?"
Earlier this year this nice summary of LIDAR companies was published. While it misses a few projects, I recommend it as a nice visual overview of the many LIDAR technologies in production and under development.
This should make a stronger case on the question of the role of LIDAR. Almost all teams are using and planning to use LIDAR, expecting some of the companies in this report to deliver production quality, reasonably priced LIDAR around 2020-2021. A number of teams, namely several startups and Tesla, are trying to work without LIDAR. As I have written before, this is an error, because it is usually done with the goal of saving money -- cameras are much cheaper, especially when you want to look in all directions. Now is not the time to be cheap.
Elon Musk makes one of the few counter-arguments, claiming that "LIDAR is a crutch." That it is just letting teams get away with not making their vision systems sufficiently good. He feels it is making teams chase a "local maximum" though he may have mostly been critical of approaches that rely almost entirely on LIDAR with minimal use of vision. That is not the approach of any major team today I am aware of.
Tesla's lack of LIDAR has a more mundane explanation -- there is no suitable LIDAR on the market today that you can buy in production volumes for the cars he is making. Tesla is young but already has a legacy -- it is making and delivery cars today, and has prime focus on what it can do in the cars it makes today. Those cars can't have LIDAR, so their team works hard on what they can do with what they have.
For a while Tesla would let you buy "full self drive" as an option when you bought a car. You paid for some extra cameras and the promise that later, a software update would give you full-self drive. That option was removed last month, indicating Tesla has realized that the existing sensor package is probably not going to do it and it was silly to sell a function when you didn't know how you would deliver it, or if you could.
Today, every team has just one focus -- get safe enough, and prove you have gotten safe enough, so that you can get out on the roads developing a real service. They all want to get there soonest, and if they are smart, they are not trying to save money doing so if it costs them time. If it costs you capability, it costs you safety and it costs you time. Saving money is for 2025, not today.
LIDAR's superhuman sensing is no crutch. While far from perfect, it is never going to have a problem telling something close from something far. It is never going to have a problem seeing at night. That's too much to throw away. Fused with vision and radar it's a win. The main competitor to it would be high resolution RADAR which would do almost all LIDAR does but also see through fog. (Radar will probably not see road texture and line markers, however.)