Lidar has become the primary way most driverless cars sense the world around them, bouncing laser light off nearby objects to create 3-D maps of their surroundings.
For years, the industry leader in lidar has been Velodyne, which builds some of the most expensive, ultra-high-resolution sensors available. But the rapid growth of self-driving vehicle research prompted other firms to start making them too – among them, a startup called Luminar, which was set up by Stanford drop-out Austin Russell and came out of stealth last year.
Luminar’s technology is different to other lidar systems. It uses a longer wavelength of light to operate at higher powers, allowing it to see darker objects over longer distances. It’s also able to zoom in on areas of specific interest.
But its sensors, which use a mechanical mirror system and expensive indium gallium arsenide semiconductors, were difficult and pricey to produce. Early units cost at least tens of thousands of dollars and required an entire day of human labor to assemble.
Over the last year, Russell, who was one of MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators Under 35 in 2017, says the firm has taken steps to change that. It acquired a chip design firm called Black Forest Engineering, hired consumer electronics experts, and set up its manufacturing complex in Orlando – all with the aim of building its sensor at commercial scale.
As a result, Russell says that the latest version of the sensor is approaching being auto-grade, meaning it should be ready for extreme temperatures, inclement weather, and other adverse conditions a production car might be exposed to (though it’s yet to be certified as such). The careful redesign of its laser detector chip, meanwhile, has cut its cost from tens of thousands of dollars to just $3, and automation means the sensors can now be built in eight minutes.
All of that means Luminar reckons it can offer a set of sensors for “a few thousand” dollars, Russell says. At the same time, it’s also boosted the specs, so the sensor can detect objects that are 250 meters off—enough for 7 seconds of reaction time at 75mph.
Ingmar Posner, an associate professor of information engineering at the University of Oxford and founder of the university’s autonomous-driving spinoff Oxbotica, says that the specifications and price point of the sensor “sound great.” But he also points out that the price will need to fall further if the sensors are to be used in affordable consumer vehicles.
That could yet happen. Russell points out that the sensor cost is related to the scale of production, and by the end of the year Luminar plans to be building 5,000 of its sensors every quarter. That’s a lot – more than the 10,000 sensors that competitor Velodyne planned to build last year – and would give it enough, Russell claims, to equip every autonomous test car on the roads by the end of this year.
The major hurdle to that kind of market dominance is convincing other research groups and automakers to switch from their existing sensors – something that would require rewriting control software and re-mapping entire cities so cars can navigate using the new sensors. Russell likens the situation to “ripping off a Band-Aid,” because it will need to happen at some point as carmakers switch to using auto-grade, rather than experimental, sensors.
What remains to be seen for Luminar, though, is just how soon that Band-Aid gets pulled.