Luminar, a Silicon Valley-based maker of laser lidar sensors that self-driving cars need to see their surroundings in 3-D, for more than a year has collaborated with Audi’s new autonomous tech unit to help it meet a goal of getting a robotic ride service on the road for the Volkswagen Group starting in 2021.
Led by 23-year-old optics savant Austin Russell, Luminar started supplying its sensors and other technology to Audi’s Autonomous Intelligent Driving in 2017, though the companies are only now revealing their alliance. AID test vehicles operating in Munich, where the German startup is based, are each outfitted with two forward-facing Luminar sensors that use pulsed laser beams to create ghostly three-dimensional point cloud images of city streets, pedestrians, cyclists and other cars.
Luminar previously said it supplies lidar sensors to Toyota Research Institute and Volvo, which is also an investor, as well as more than a dozen other automakers and autonomous tech programs – including Audi’s AID. As of November sales of Luminar sensors were generating “eight-figure” annual revenue, the company said. Still, CEO Russell declined to provide financial details of the Audi AID partnership to Forbes.
Luminar also doesn’t provide pricing details for its long-range lidar units, though competitors’ models cost multiple thousands of dollars each.
Since AID is a newer program, begun in March 2017, “what they’ve built is really from the ground up – it’s not based on legacy (technology) they’ve tried to make work,” said Russell, who founded Luminar in 2012 while still in high school. “And the AID group is basically there to serve the broader Volkswagen organization in terms of delivering autonomous driving technology to the different groups, from the proper Volkswagen brand to Audi to Porsche and the other brands.”
Although Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, which began operating an app-based, self-driving ride service in suburban Phoenix this month, makes its lidar units in-house, every other major autonomous drive program relies on outside companies to supply the sensors. Luminar emerged from stealth mode in 2017 with $36 million fundraising announcement and a goal of taking on industry leader Velodyne with a sensor that it says matches or exceeds the range and image quality of every competing lidar on the market. The company currently has about 400 employees, including those at its factory in Orlando, Florida, and estimates its contracts to supply lidar sensors to carmakers and tech firms in high volume from the early 2020s are worth $1.5 billion.
Luminar says its current sensor reliably sees objects at night, including dark ones, that are 250 meters ahead even in a vehicle traveling at highway speeds of up to 75 miles per hour.
“Perception remains a bottleneck today for autonomous mobility and we quickly worked to find the most powerful sensors to make the perception task easier,” Alexandre Haag, chief technology officer of AID, said in a statement. “That’s where Luminar comes in – the technology is clearly above the pack in terms of range and density, which is important for solving the most challenging problems in autonomy.”