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Luminar Finds a Lidar Partner in Toyota

by Justin Tejada
For someone whose company develops and sells Lidar sensor systems, Luminar CEO Austin Russell isn't scared of criticizing the technology.

"Current top-of-the-line Lidar -- those boxes you see on top of test cars tooling around big cities -- cost $75,000 to $85,000," Russell was quoted as saying in July. "When the technology is optimized, the price will initially be $300,000 to $400,000 -- the price that fleet owners will be willing to pay because of how profitable ride-hailing will be as a business."

That prediction isn't exactly music to anyone's ears, at least not anyone who's interested in owning a self-driving car anytime soon. Russell wasn't just saying that Lidar -- the laser-pulse technology that forms the backbone of most self-driving cars' operations -- is prohibitively expensive, he's saying that it's not yet viable and it will be even more costly once it is.

Nonetheless, the 22-year-old Russell and Luminar, the company he founded after dropping out of Stanford, continue to try and perfect Lidar and make it affordable at scale.

Now, it seems they are closing in on both.

Toyota recently announced that a Luminar-designed Lidar is a central component of the automaker's highly touted new Platform 2.1 autonomous research vehicle.

"This new Lidar provides a longer sensing range, a much denser point cloud to better detect positions of three-dimensional objects, and a field of view that is the first to be dynamically configurable, which means that measurement points can be concentrated where sensing is needed most," according to a statement from Toyota Research Institute. "The new Lidar is married to the existing sensing system for 360-degree coverage."

The Lidar that Luminar has developed represents a significant step forward from the technology that is available elsewhere on the market, according to Russell.

"It's easy to get an autonomous vehicle to work 99% of the time. The challenge is always that last 1% of the edge cases that it has to handle, like a kid running into the street chasing after a ball or a tire on the road," Russell said in a video for Fortune. "Autonomous cars cannot reliably see these things today. We allow autonomous vehicles, for the first time, to clearly make out and understand these situations, and make great decisions accordingly."

"A lot of people talk as if the autonomous vehicle space is right around the corner, but that couldn't be further from the truth," he added. "In current autonomous driving systems ... the driver has to take over on a surprisingly often basis. We're the first center that actually meets the minimum specification of all these different car companies and tech companies have [needed] to enable fully autonomous vehicles."

Russell is far from the first to criticize the status quo when it comes to available Lidar technology.

In fact, it's perhaps the foremost point of contention on the technology side of the autonomous vehicle world right now.

A small number of autonomous vehicle developers, the most prominent being Tesla, forego using Lidar altogether for a variety of reasons. But if what Russell says his true, his already well-regarded team at Luminar has broken down the barriers that have stalled Lidar's development for so long. That is all the more reason to be excited about Toyota's Platform 2.1.

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