Silicon Valley Start-up Luminar to Begin Production of its LiDAR
Luminar, a Silicon Valley start-up has developed an improved Lidar for self-driving cars and announced that production will begin soon. Some features of this system are highlighted.
By Eric Walz
Silicon Valley start-up Luminar is preparing to start manufacturing its LiDAR sensor for self-driving cars, the company said on Thursday, April 13, (PDT).
Founded in 2012 by two photonics experts Austin Russell and Jason Eichenholz, Luminar has kept a relatively low profile in the race between automakers, start-ups, and other major technology companies, such as Google, in introducing self-driving cars to the world. The startup, which has raised $36 million in seed-stage funding so far, has designed and built its LiDAR systems from scratch over the past five years.
Rather than the large, bulky spinning roof mounted LiDAR systems on early self-driving cars from Google and Uber, Luminar's much smaller lidar assembly can be unobtrusively mounted on a vehicle. Each individual LiDAR offers a 120-degree view, although most cars would need four to monitor the entire 360 degree environment around the vehicle with overlap.
Although Luminar has not released the price of its LiDAR, current LiDAR sensors are very expensive, some even cost more than an entire car. However, prices are expected to drop soon, due to improvements in engineering and manufacturing, and as the demand for LiDAR increases.
For example, Alphabet's Waymo, after initially using $70,000 lidar sensors supplied by Morgan Hill, California Velodyne Lidar Inc. on its self-driving vehicles, elected to develop its own LiDAR for lower cost and increased reliability. In December of 2016, Velodyne unveiled a much smaller LiDAR system starting at $7,999.
Luminar designed and built all its sensor's hardware components from scratch. Its lasers operate on a higher wavelength of 1,550 nanometers rather than the more common 905 nanometer systems. This will offer improved performance, with much higher detail and improved detection of darker objects that are further away. This will help self-driving cars "see" better at night.
Currently, Luminar has about 50 employees working on research and development in Silicon Valley's Portola Valley, and another 100 employees at its Florida factory and offices.
So far, Luminar has about 100 hand-assembled LiDAR sensors built, and its sensors are being tested by four major car companies, which it has yet to disclose. According to the company, by the end of 2017, Luminar's 50,000-square-foot factory in Orlando, Florida hopes to produce 10,000 units.
Luminar and Velodyne are not the only companies developing LiDAR systems for automotive applications. Another Silicon Valley start-up company Quanergy, located in Sunnyvale, California is also working on LiDAR sensors, and announced full scale manufacturing to begin in 2017. Quanergy states they will eventually sell their units for $250 each, while offering competitive performance than the more expensive ones Luminar intends to produce. However, Luminar investor Rebecca Lynn, a partner at Canvas VC, expects Luminar will become a major strategic player in the automotive industry once it's LiDAR is made available.