Most of the companies working on autonomous driving systems — that would be any company that expects to still be in business 10 years from now — is relying on lidar, the technology that is similar to radar but relies on light instead of sound waves. Elon Musk has been particularly dismissive of lidar. At Tesla’s recent Autonomy Day he said, “Anyone relying on lidar is doomed. It’s like having a whole bunch of expensive appendices. Like, one appendix is bad, well now you have a whole bunch of them.” That’s pretty damning stuff.
The lidar equipment that exists is pricey — up to $75,000 per unit. That may have been a contributing factor in the fatal accident in Tempe, Arizona when a pedestrian was run down by an Uber test car at night. At the time, Uber was trying to reduce the cost of its self-driving cars by reducing the number of lidar units installed on its self-driving cars from 7 to 1.
This week, Luminar announced its third generation lidar unit, which it calls Iris. The device costs just $500 and is about the size of a soda can, which means it can easily be mounted on the front bumper or in the grille of an automobile. Luminar says it is “automotive grade,” suggesting it is rugged enough to endure years of real world driving including potholes, vibration, and weather extremes. The Iris unit weighs about 2 pounds and draws about 15 amps of electricity.
Speaking of weather, one of Musk’s biggest objections to lidar is its inability to function well in fog, rain, snow, and other climatic conditions in which moisture in the atmosphere may refract light waves. According to Wired, Lumimar says Iris is not affected by such conditions, which would be a major breakthrough in lidar technology, but does not say exactly how it conquered that problem.
Austin Russel, CEO of Luminar, tells Wired that lidar is a critical component for advanced self-driving cars because it sees as well at night at during the daytime and is able to identify pedestrians and bicyclists to pick out things like pedestrians and cyclists. “You can see this stuff with lidar,” he says.
One other advantage of Luminar’s new lidar unit is its small size. Until now, lidar equipped cars have had bizarre arrays of bubbles and bangles affixed to their rooftops, making them look like the robot from Lost In Space. Elon Musk’s objection to lidar may be as much aesthetic as technical. Today’s systems would absolutely destroy the svelte lines of Tesla vehicles.
Adding an affordable lidar component to self-driving systems would not bring cars up to Level 5 autonomy. It would take a number of units mounted around the perimeter of a car to make that possible. But adding an Iris unit could expand the number of instances when a driver could safely take hands off the steering wheel, especially while driving on limited access highways.
Don’t look for Iris to be installed on production cars anytime soon. Austin Russell says his company is working on six highway driving projects with vehicle makers but the long lead times common in the automotive industry mean Iris won’t be part of any production cars until 2022 at the earliest. Until then, eyes on the road and hands on the wheel will continue to be the order of the day for drivers.