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[NEWS] How US firm Luminar plans to revolutionise car safety

How US firm Luminar plans to revolutionise car safety

Volvo EX90 2023 Lidar
The new Volvo EX90 uses Luminar's lidar tech

Lidar developer Luminar has boldly pledged to deliver the "uncrashable car"

When it comes to grabbing attention, lidar developer Luminar doesn’t hold back. In 2021, it pledged to deliver the “uncrashable car”. And its website proudly asserts: “First seatbelts. Then airbags. Now Luminar.”

Lofty claims, and it seems manufacturers are being persuaded of the company’s potential.

A multi-billion-dollar deal with Mercedes has been secured and there are also significant agreements in place to supply Volvo, Polestar and Chinese giant SAIC.

But can a start-up that only really began to operate seriously in 2017 revolutionise automotive safety to such a dramatic extent? Autocar spoke to Luminar to find out more about its technology and its long-term vision.

Based in Orlando, Florida, Luminar has emerged as one of the main players in the hugely competitive arena of lidar, the remote sensing tech that uses laser pulses to build a three-dimensional environment of what's in front of a vehicle, allowing it to detect objects on the road ahead up to 300m (as well as facilitating driver assistance features or full autonomous functionality).

“We can create a very confident safety envelope around a vehicle regardless of who is driving,” says Matthew Weed, senior director of product strategy at Luminar. Ultimately, this means fewer collisions.

According to Luminar’s estimates, there were more than 65 companies with active lidar programmes in 2018. By January 2023, it was able to verify 25. And of these, there are four others it considers the main players in the automotive market: Innoviz of Israel, China’s RoboSense and Hesai, and Valeo of France.

What Luminar says differentiates its product from rivals’ offerings is performance. “There are 100 specifications and requirements within a lidar system, but what it gets distilled to is how far away you can detect things, and you can very directly tie that up to how fast it is safe to drive,” says Weed.

To back up his claims, Weed produces data from the United Nations Economic and Social Council that shows Luminar lidar can detect a tyre on the road at around 160m away – twice the distance of other lidar. This effectively means cars equipped with Luminar tech can safely travel at a greater speed.

Weed says: “Mercedes has launched a shorter-range lidar [from another supplier] in its [Drive Pilot] vehicles doing level three [autonomy] capped at 65kph (40mph). What they will do with us is push to 130kph (80mph). This is why we are different.”

Another source of Luminar’s confidence is the belief that the industry needs to do more in terms of safety. Weed says: “It is surprisingly bad what is out there today from a safety perspective when you really dive into it. ADAS safety technology has got a lot better over the last handful of years, but it has been handcuffed by the traditional automotive push for commoditisation and cost at the expense of what could be possible. Radar is the best example. The automotive industry has pushed radar in a direction where it’s very cheap now, but it doesn’t really give you a whole lot.”

While lidar may be effective, can we ever expect it to achieve ubiquity in the way seatbelts and airbags have, as Luminar claims? This is an area that the company is focusing heavily on, having devised a roadmap intended to accelerate a rollout. The first step on this route has seen it “sink significant resources” with partners into insurance products to back up the tech. The business case, according to Weed, is to “capture the value through safety immediately and provide the auto makers the upside of selling autonomy as a luxury feature.”

That’s all very well, but how does this fit into a landscape where, for example, Dacia – a company that has very publicly committed to eschewing “complicated” features – enjoys such massive sales success? Luminar says its road map drives to the point where lidar can be a “net zero” inclusion, citing next-generation tech that will target around $350 (£281) of cost that can be achieved in insurance savings. The next decade, Weed feels, is when the “challenging but doable” task of making lidar must-have tech can be realised, and he adds that Luminar is currently working on units’ “size, weight, cost and power so we can get this into every car”.

For the time being, though, the focus is on expansion. Luminar recently announced a new factory in Asia to join existing facilities in the US, Thailand, Mexico and China; billionaire CEO Austin Russell says its lidar will be in “millions” of cars by the end of the decade; and future orders are predicted to be worth multi-billions of dollars.

All the evidence, then, points to an automotive industry that is ready to wholeheartedly embrace lidar in general and Luminar in particular, despite the scepticism of critic-in-chief Elon Musk, who has been famously dismissive, describing it as “a fool’s errand” and refusing to use it on Teslas.

Luminar believes this take is absurd. “Whether it may be possible for a car to drive itself with just cameras is an irrelevant question,” says Weed. “The question we ask is: will it always be safer? If you have lidar technology in the vehicle, the answer is yes. I don’t think anybody would say no. And so, it’s all about justifying the cost. If we can drive the cost down enough to capture the value through fewer collisions, then it’s an irrelevant conversation.”

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