Lidar startup says it can mass-produce cost-effective sensors
SAN FRANCISCO -- One year after making its public debut, lidar startup Luminar is tackling the persistent problem of efficiently mass-producing automotive-grade sensors.
The Palo Alto, California, company said Thursday it will scale production of its next-generation lidar sensing platform to 5,000 units a quarter by year end. That's enough, Luminar CEO Austin Russell said, to equip every autonomous test vehicle now in operation.
"The focus here is all about scale," Russell, 23, said. "We've got production time down from a whole day to just eight minutes for build time per unit."
Lidar sensors have become a burgeoning industry as most manufacturers have deemed the 3-D laser sensor technology vital to a self-driving car's ability to see the world around it. But the sensors traditionally have been used for r&d and are new to production-level automotive products, and suppliers have struggled to efficiently increase manufacturing and ensure durability.
Cheaper lidar was at the center of the high-profile lawsuit brought by Waymo, which had developed sensors in-house to reduce costs, accusing Uber of stealing its designs. The companies settled the suit in February, with Waymo taking $245 million worth of equity in Uber.
Russell said Luminar simplified production with a sensor design that uses just one laser and one receiver, building a 120-degree field of vision. Competitors such as Velodyne use as many as 64 lasers to create a 360-degree view. Prices for such systems can range from $4,000 to $85,000 per unit. In October, Velodyne said it quadrupled production in its 200,000-square-foot factory in San Jose, California.
Luminar also acquired its chip supplier, Black Forest Engineering, reducing the component cost from "tens of thousands of dollars" to $3 and expanded its production center in Orlando to 125,000 square feet.
Luminar has agreements with four automakers, including Toyota Research Institute, the automaker's r&d arm. Russell said the startup has been working with its manufacturer partners to test and validate the sensor platform for production vehicles, running it through temperature, weather and shock tests.
"That's what the past six months have been about," he said. "Being able to finally fill that demand and have the corporate infrastructure in place to do so."