New Technology May Help Self-Driving Cars See Better

April 13, 2017, 12:00 PM UTC

Twenty-two year old Stanford dropout Austin Russell started working on self driving car technology before he was old enough to drive. Nearly seven years later, Russell believes that his creation, a small little black box the size of a car battery, may make self-driving cars a lot safer.

Russell’s startup, Luminar, pulled back the curtain on its work Thursday after years of working in near secrecy. The company claims to have made a big advancement in LiDAR, one of the standard guidance systems used in self-driving cars and what keeps them from smashing into trees, buses, and pedestrians crossing the road.

LiDAR technology is at the center of the self driving car world because it helps cars navigate by letting them detect objects around them without human help. The technology emits laser beams around the car to create a highly accurate 3D map of what’s around it.

LiDAR data will tell a car that a cyclist is crossing in front of it at a stop sign or that a pedestrian is walking nearby on a sidewalk. This laser map, plus cameras and software, provides the information that helps a car operate without a driver in control.

The challenge for self-driving cars is that LiDAR technology is expensive. In fact, it’s among the most costly things in self-driving vehicles. A high-end LiDAR costs more than $75,000, according to Waymo, the self-driving car arm of Google’s parent company, Alphabet—and most autonomous cars need at least two LiDAR systems.

Russell’s company would compete against rivals like Velodyne, which Waymo used for its LiDAR until 2012. Uber, Volkswagen, and Ford are also said to be Velodyne customers.

Waymo has since created its own LiDAR technology while trying to slash the cost. It’s also suing Uber for allegedly stealing some of its self-driving car designs, signaling just how much of a flash point self-driving cars technology has become for the many companies trying to carve out a market in the nascent field.

Russell declined to reveal what Luminar charges for it LiDAR, which it plans to mass produce and sell to automakers. But he hinted that it doesn’t come cheap, implying that cutting corners could lead to accidents.

“With price going down, performance will go down,” Russell said. “We are focused on building the best performing technology.”

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Russell contends that competing LiDAR systems face another challenge: They’re unable to process information fast enough for cars traveling at high speeds. He and co-founder Jason Eichenholz say that the best performing LiDAR systems can only see dark objects (which reflect less light) no more than 35 meters away.

That leaves only one second of reaction time for cars driving at highway speeds. It’s simply not enough time to avoid collisions.

However, Russell says that Luminar’s LiDAR can spot hard-to-see objects like black cars up to 200 meters away— cars traveling at 75 mph seven seconds to change lanes or veer out of the way.

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But Russell declined to compare Luminar’s performance to that of any other specific manufacturer. Nor would he say where he got the one second and 35 meter limits on LiDAR technology from other companies.

Russell was also vague about how his team managed to improve its LiDAR’s performance. He would only say that that the company has built new sensors and chips using “exotic” materials such as gallium arcinide instead of relying on existing components from suppliers.

The company, which operates from a Silicon Valley mansion and has a Orlando, Fla. production facility, has raised $36 million in funding from Canvas Ventures, GVA Capital, and 1517 Fund. Luminar was reportedly looking to raise additional funds at $1 billion valuation last year, but the startup didn’t comment about additional fundraising or the valuation of the company.

Russell declined to say which companies are using his startup’s LiDAR, saying only that 100 units are being tested by a handful of partners—at least some of which are paying an undisclosed amount to do so. He added that the response has been “overwhelmingly positive” and that “some customers have been asking to buy every LiDAR sensor they produce for the next five years.”

It’s clear that Russell doesn’t have ambitions to build autonomous vehicles that many believe will become the norm on city streets and highways. The big question that remains is whether Luminar will be the company that Ford, GM, and Uber use as a LiDAR supplier if and when they start selling their own autonomous vehicles.

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