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Silicon Valley engineer launches driverless car sensor start-up

A 22-year-old Silicon Valley engineer, who was paid by a venture capitalist to skip college, has launched a start-up which aims to solve one of the toughest technical challenges in autonomous driving. 

Austin Russell founded Luminar Technologies in 2012, when he was just 17, to create a new version of the laser-based imaging sensor that is known in the automotive industry as Lidar. Backed by investors including the well-known venture capitalist Peter Thiel, Mr Russell unveiled Luminar on Thursday after five years of secretive development, claiming a 50-fold improvement in resolution compared with existing Lidar products. 

Lidar sensors have become a key enabler of self-driving cars because they allow vehicles to “see” the world around them, allowing vehicles to navigate and avoid obstacles. Uber and Alphabet’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, are locked in a bitter legal battle over allegations of stolen Lidar designs. 

As start-ups, automotive manufacturers and tech companies rush into autonomous driving, supplies of existing Lidar systems from manufacturers such as Velodyne have become so scarce that the devices have a waiting list several months long. 

At the same time, limitations in existing Lidar systems such as struggling to see through rain or snow have been seen as a barrier to widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles outside sunny areas such as California. 

Mr Russell says that he can solve these supply and quality problems and in doing so, “make autonomous vehicles both safe and ubiquitous” — although crucially he has not disclosed the price he will charge for his Lidar systems. 

After tinkering with photonics projects that included laser-powered drones and augmented-reality glasses in his teens, Mr Russell settled on creating high-resolution, long-range Lidar sensors as a way into the nascent autonomous vehicle market, which even then he believed “would eventually become vital to transportation”. 

Back in 2012, while Google had been testing its first autonomous vehicles for a couple of years, it was an outlier in Silicon Valley and there remained widespread scepticism about the technology’s viability. Today, 29 companies have been approved by the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test autonomous vehicles in the state

For those companies to succeed in deploying self-driving cars broadly and safely, “you need great data and great reliability”, Mr Russell says. “You need to be able to tell the difference between the proverbial kid running out into the street chasing after a ball and the ball that’s out there in the street, which is a thing that current Lidar systems can’t do today.” 

Mr Russell claims that Luminar’s technology is able to deliver 50 times better resolution and 10 times longer range than some of its rivals. At a demonstration at a warehouse on San Francisco’s Embarcadero this week, specially equipped Teslas and BMWs drove around models of children, adults in dark clothing and even a small herd of deer to attest to Luminar’s fidelity. 

Mr Russell says his company’s advantage is that it created many of its components from scratch, including its own microprocessors. For instance, instead of using silicon in its receivers, it uses Indium Gallium Arsenide, and because “InGaAs” is usually expensive, Luminar found its own way to produce the alloy. 

“We’re making all of our own stuff, from the chip level up,” Mr Russell says. “It’s allowed us to reduce the cost from what used to be thousands of dollars [per sensor] to something that is orders of magnitude less.”

The start-up is based at a former tank maintenance facility in Portola Valley, not far from Stanford University, with a 50,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Orlando, Florida. A handful of unnamed partners are currently testing the first 100 Luminar sensors and the Florida factory will be begin production of a 10,000-unit batch later this year. 

So far, Luminar has raised $36m in funding from investors including Canvas Ventures, GVA Capital and 1517 Fund. The latter is an offshoot of the Thiel Fellowship, which gives young people $100,000 to become entrepreneurs instead of continuing with higher education. Mr Russell was among 2013’s Thiel Fellows. 

While most autonomous driving pioneers agree that a fully self-driving car will need Lidar, Elon Musk, the Tesla chief executive who worked closely with Mr Thiel at PayPal in the payment company’s early days, has said the technology is too expensive and limited. Tesla instead uses cameras, radar and computer-vision systems to power its Autopilot. 

Mr Russell claims to be unfazed by going up against the likes of Mr Musk or Uber and Waymo, who are developing their own Lidar. “We absolutely could foresee those companies [Uber and Waymo] as being customers,” he says. “It’s a cornerstone technology of this industry. And they’ve had to develop it out of necessity — they really don’t want to do that.”

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