Luminar CEO Austin Russell watches a 3D lidar map on a demonstration drive in San Francisco. Picture: Ben Margot / AP

San Francisco, California - Austin Russell, now 22, was barely old enough to drive when he set out to create a safer navigation system for robot-controlled cars. His ambitions are about to be tested.

Five years ago, Russell co-founded Luminar Technologies, a Silicon Valley startup trying to steer the rapidly expanding self-driving car industry in a new direction. Luminar kept its work closely guarded until Thursday, when the startup revealed the first details about a product Russell is touting as a far more powerful form of "lidar," a key sensing technology used in autonomous vehicles designed by Google, Uber and major automakers.

Lidar systems work by bouncing lasers off nearby objects and measuring the reflections to build up a detailed three-dimensional picture of the surrounding environment. The technology is similar to radar, which uses radio waves instead of lasers.

Russell says Luminar's version, consisting of its own patented hardware and software, will provide 50 times more resolution and 10 times the range of current lidar systems. Those improvements, he said, will enable self-driving cars to be sold on the mass market more quickly.

During an interview in an empty warehouse on a San Francisco pier where Luminar has been testing its lidar, Russell wasn't shy about making big claims for its technology.

"When you see your vehicle is powered by Luminar, you will know you will be safer," he said. "We need to get to the point where humans don't have to constantly baby-sit and take control of autonomous cars."

If Luminar's lidar lives up to its promise, some of the world's biggest technology and auto companies may have been upstaged by a precocious entrepreneur who says he memorised all the periodic table of the elements when he was two years old. By the time he turned 11, Russell says he was tinkering with supercomputers.

Revolutionary invention

Most of Luminar's roughly 150 employees are older than he is, including his former mentor in photonics, 45-year-old Jason Eichenholz, now the company's chief technology officer. 

Now Russell will have to prove he has indeed invented something revolutionary. While lidar is a key component in self-driving clears, some believe Luminar may be working on the wrong problem. The big issue for lidar systems these days is cost, not safety, said Alex Lidow, CEO of Efficient Power Conversion, which supplies chips for lidar. The systems currently cost thousands of dollars apiece.

"You don't need the resolution that would allow a car to stop before a bug hits its windshield," Lidow said. "The question comes down to, what is the exact right amount of information for the car to make exactly the right decision all the time?"

'The final one percent is tricky'

Luminar plans to being manufacturing 10 000 lidar units at a plant in Orlando, Florida, this year - but Russell won't disclose what they'll cost. 

Luminar will be competing against Waymo, a company spun off from Google's early work on self-driving cars, which has a solid track record so far. Its self-driving cars have logged more than three million kilometres in autonomous mode on city streets without being involved in a major traffic accident. Most of the roughly three dozen crashes that Google has reported were fender benders.

Russell isn't impressed.

"It's very easy to build an autonomous vehicle that is safe 99 percent of the time," he said. "It's that other one percent that's the tricky part."


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