LiDAR Company Luminar Making Moves to Dominate Autonomous Segment

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【Summary】Luminar is betting big on scale to challenge leaders in the LiDAR segment.

Original Vineeth Joel Patel    Apr 22, 2018 9:00 AM PT
LiDAR Company Luminar Making Moves to Dominate Autonomous Segment

When it comes to LiDAR makers, major players, like Velodyne lead the way. LiDAR is one of the necessary components to make a car drive on its own, and automakers and tech companies are willing to pay a premium for it. Silicon Valley startup Luminar believes it has come out with a new system that could rival those of major players in the autonomous scene. 

How Does LiDAR Work?

Before getting into how Luminar plans to take on Velodyne and other large LiDAR manufacturers, it's crucial to have a good understanding of how the system works and what it does. LiDAR essentially builds a 3-D map of a vehicle's surroundings by shooing millions of lasers a second. The system measures how long the lasers take to bounce back and makes an image of its surroundings based off of the information it gets back.  

LiDAR's been around since 2005, but in more modern times, Velodyne's systems have become the go-to options for automakers and tech companies. Some, though, have decided to down the path of developing their own LiDAR systems, which include Waymo and General Motor's cruise courtesy of Strobe. 

Luminar's only been in the industry since 2017, but it's already got some large automakers to its name. Toyota partnered with the company at the end of last year to place its LiDAR system onto its vehicles. And three others have patterned with the company, as well, but they're keeping their lips shut on who those companies are. 

How Luminar Plans To Dominate The LiDAR Market

With the background out of the way, Luminar recently unveiled its latest LiDAR unit and it sounds like it could give Velodyne cause for concern. The new system has a 120-degree field of vehicle, which is enough to see what's immediately ahead of the vehicle. Companies will need to tack a couple of units on their vehicle to get full 360-degree coverage. Luminar has only produced 100 units of the new LiDAR system, but has plans to produce them by the thousands. 

"By the end of this year, we'll have enough capacity to equip pretty much every autonomous test and development vehicle on the road, globally," said CEO Austin Russell. "This is no longer being built by optics PhDs in a handcrafted process. This is a proper automotive serial product." 

The company's being dead serious about building enough to dominate the industry, too. Luminar has a 136,000 square-foot facility where it has reduced the build time for its new unit from roughly a day to just eight minutes. With that kind of a schedule, Luminar could make enough units of its LiDAR system to be on every single autonomous car on the road. 

Getting build times down is just one step Luminar is taking to catch up to its competitors. Luminar has also doubled its staff to approximately 350 employees and hired Jason Wojack from Motorola to lead its hardware team. The manufacturing side of things is handled by Alejandro Garcia who was brought in from automotive supplier Harman. 

Why go through the trouble of doubling its workforce and trying to cut down on production times? Its all to compete with the likes of Velodyne. Last year, Velodyne opened a massive factory to increase its sensor production. It worked, as the company built a total of 10,000 laser sensors last year. According to President Marta Hall, Velodyne could build much, much more if it wanted to — approximately a million sensors a year. 

Luminar LiDAR.jpg

Luminar Has A High-Tech And Affordable LiDAR System

Building LiDAR sensors, though, isn't enough, as price plays a large role in how well a company's system will do when it goes on sale. As Wired points out, Velodyne's most expensive LiDAR unit costs $75,000 a piece. That, though, comes with 360-degree vision and a 300-meter range. Automakers and tech companies can purchase the system in bulk, but it doesn't help ease the sting of spending that much money on one item. 

Luminar has reportedly solved the dilemma of cost by utilizing indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs) instead of the industry-standard silicon. As Wired points out, the simple move to a different type of material has resulted in a large change in what kind of LiDAR Luminar have been able to make. 

The majority of LiDAR manufacturers in the industry utilize silicon, which allows their sensors to operate at the 905 nanometer wavelength. While that wavelength is invisible to humans, if shot directly into someone's eye with enough power, it could do damage to the retina. Making a system that can detect objects at a further distance requires firing off more powerful laser pulses. Without blinding everyone in sight, the 1550 nanometer wavelength is the one companies would have to use. 

LiDAR systems that use silicon can't detect light at the 1550 wavelength, but InGaAs can. On the other hand, InGaAs are a lot more expensive than silicon units. Despite the extra cost, Russell insisted on having an extra powerful LiDAR system, which meant going with the 1500 wavelength and using InGaAs. 

The result is a system that can fire laser pulses that are 40 times more powerful than the competition, can see objects in the dark, and can detect objects from 250 meters (820) feet away. Luminar believes the latter is an industry first. 

Going with something that's more powerful is obviously not going to be cheap. But Russell thought of a way around that, as well, by building his own InGaAs. The system is reportedly in its seventh iteration and is now the size of a strawberry seed. It began life as the same size as a potato chip. The incredible part of it, though, is that it costs roughly $3. Russell hasn't stated how much the entire LiDAR system costs, but stated that Luminar's customers are happy with the product. As Luminar continues to build more units of the system, prices should go down, too. 

While Luminar's sensor already sounds promising, the company is reportedly working on the next-gen sensor. That one will be affordable enough to place on consumer vehicles, which it could place on nearly ever car on the road, giving them the ability to drive without humans. 

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