Luminar is a new San Francisco based start up that claims its Lidar system can see further and with more accuracy than any laser based system before. The company is run by Austin Russell, who has been working nearly full time on improving Lidar technology for more than 5 years. Russell is 22. Yes, that means he started when he was 17.
Lidar is one of the electronic “eyes” that make self driving cars possible. Elon Musk pooh poohs the technology because he says its performance is significantly degraded by too much moisture in the air from haze, rain, fog, or snow, but many companies are using Lidar to make autonomous driving possible. Waymo and Uber are locked in a titanic courtroom struggle at the moment. Google alleges that one of its employees stole its Lidar secrets and transferred them to Uber, a claim that Uber hotly denies.
During a recent demonstration for Endgadget, Luminar CTO Jason Eichenholz used showed what a normal Lidar system sees and what the Luminar system sees. The difference was startling. It wasn’t just the extra detail in the foreground that impressed the observer, it was how far into the distance the Luminar system could see. A black panel 650 feet away from the system was clearly visible on the display. Typical systems can only see objects that are 100 feet away or less.
The Endgadget reporter found “the detail of those people and machines was higher than I’ve seen on competing systems. It was a rainbow colored world of lines and shadows that when translated by a computer is the difference between an autonomous vehicle seeing a box and recognizing that mass of pixels in the distance as a small dog.”
Russell says, “I looked really deeply into the Lidar space and saw there was a severe lack of innovation — for even the past decade — in terms of advancing the performance to any significant extent with any new architecture.” So he built his own from the chip-level up. In the process, he had to find “2,000 ways not to make” Lidar.
He won’t talk publicly about the cost of his system, but says, “we tried to be able to make this affordable long term for all types of cars, from the Honda Fit all the way up to the Bentley.” Velodyne is currently the leading manufacturer of Lidar systems, which range from as little as $8,000 to as much as $75,000.
Luminar says it is working with four as yet unnamed partners on autonomous driving systems. Those companies will receive the first 100 units soon. They will then beta test them and provide feedback from their testing to Luminar. After that, the company will build and ship an additional 10,000 units by the end of the year. Will your next car have a Lidar sensor from Luminar as standard equipment? It very well might if the testing goes well and the price is right.