Austin Russell, the 26-year-old CEO of lidar maker Luminar, folds his lanky six-foot, four-inch frame into the back of a Toyota RAV4 and declares with giddy enthusiasm: “This is our first live demo!”
It may seem late in the game for a public demo, especially for a company that was founded in 2012 and recently went public via a $3.4 billion SPAC deal. There will be an even longer wait for those who want to see Luminar’s Iris lidar sensors in action: series production of Volvo vehicles with the company’s laser sensors embedded in the roof is not scheduled to begin until late 2022.
But on a rainy day in Manhattan, Russell is clearly excited to show off what Iris can do. He is in New York City for an event they’re calling “Studio Day” — a chance to show off not only the test vehicle we’re currently riding in, but also a few concepts of other lidar-powered vehicles, including a robotaxi and semi-trailer truck.
Lidar, a key ingredient in autonomous driving, is a laser sensor that uses near-infrared light to detect the shapes of objects. This helps autonomous vehicles “see” other road users like cars, pedestrians, and cyclists, all without the help of GPS or a network connection.
As the RAV4 bumps along through midtown Manhattan, those shapes can be viewed on two flat-screen monitors attached to the back of the front seat headrests, amorphous blobs rendered in colorful hues of orange, yellow, blue, green, and purple. We see the outline of a man walking along the sidewalk, cars passing on the road, and approaching traffic lights. A few clicks on a mobile keyboard enhances the resolution and we can even see the door handles on the rows of parked cars.
Existing active safety systems in cars, like pedestrian avoidance and blindspot detection, “are actually surprisingly bad,” Russell says. He believes that’s because automakers tend to favor testing their systems under unrealistically perfect conditions, like on sunny days with completely static objects. Cars that come equipped with Luminar’s lidar will be able to more reliably spot vulnerable road users and prevent crashes from ever occurring, he says.
“We’re actually moving towards the vision of zero collisions,” Russell adds, “building the uncrashable car.”
Luminar’s lidar uses unusually long waves of laser light, 1,550 nanometers versus the typical 905nm, which helps spot even small and low-reflective objects — dark-colored cars, animals, a child darting into the street — at a range beyond 250 meters, and up to 500 meters for larger, brighter objects. Russell said the lidar’s resolution amounts to “300 points per square degree,” but acknowledges that “there’s no good standard of measuring lidar resolutions.”
To be sure, the RAV4 is being driven by a human and is not operating autonomously. The lidar perched on the roof of the