Autonomous vehicles are associated with big names in tech and transportation, like Alphabet's Waymo, GM's Cruise or ride-hailing giants such as Didi Chuxing and Uber. Less talked about is a critical safety component, Lidar sensors, which serve as the "eyes" of a self-driving car.
Lidars are expensive today, but a start-up called Luminar is trying to make them more accessible, and powerful, for automakers. The company developed and is manufacturing Lidar systems in Orlando, Florida.
Luminar plans to churn out thousands of its sensors to major car companies at a cost of several hundred dollars apiece, while most Lidar sensors cost tens of thousands of dollars each.
This could significantly decrease the cost of self-driving cars, especially considering most will require four Lidars to get a full 360-degree "view" of the road.
According to CEO Austin Russell and CTO Jason Eichenholz, Luminar's R&D and manufacturing base in Orlando is one of its competitive advantages. While it's not Silicon Valley, Orlando is near the high-tech corridor known as Florida's Space Coast, with optics as a local specialty.
NASA's space shuttle program served as one of the largest employers in Orlando for years, but when the shuttle was retired from service in 2011, tens of thousands of jobs went with it, devastating the local economy. But NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Central Florida research universities and a wealth of engineering talent remained.
By now Luminar and other tech companies, including OneWeb, SpaceX and Blue Origin, have swooped in to take advantage of Florida's abundant tech talent, affordable real estate and lower costs of living than what you'll find in other tech hubs, like San Francisco or Seattle.
While Luminar has its largest office in Orlando, it also has Silicon Valley roots and an outpost in Palo Alto.
Russell was just 17 years old when he founded Luminar as a Stanford dropout. The teenage physicist had scored a Thiel Fellowship, funded by billionaire tech investor and Trump advisor Peter Thiel. The program gives young people a $100,000 grant to delay college and pursue advanced tech and business ideas instead.
Russell enlisted optics industry veteran Jason Eichenholz, a faculty member at the University of Central Florida College of Optics and Photonics, as his co-founder and CTO, after working with him as a research advisor.
Although Luminar is one of dozens of companies working on Lidar technology today — alongside Velodyne, Quanergy and Innoviz — its sensors are already being used by four legacy automakers.
The 23-year-old CEO explained, "People talk as if autonomous vehicles are already safer than human drivers. But we're nowhere close to autonomous yet. In order to move past this phase and avoid more tragedies like the Uber accident, test fleets are very hungry to adopt new, advanced sensing platforms like ours."
In general, Lidar sensors emit pulses of light that human eyes can't see, and measure how long the light takes to bounce back after hitting an object. Data from Lidar sensors creates a point cloud, which is like a 3-D map that shows a car where obstacles are in their environment.
Luminar's sensors stand apart because of the substance they're made of and the kind of light they emit and receive. Most sensors of this type use silicon as a substrate. Luminar uses indium gallium arsenide instead and a different frequency of light.
As a result, Luminar's systems provide 50 times better resolution and "see" a range that is more than 10 times longer than other Lidars, according to the company.
Luminar has also figured out a way to build its sensors using just the slightest amount of indium gallium arsenide, which keeps the costs low and production speed high, said Russell.
Toyota Research Institute's senior vice president of automated driving, Ryan Eustice, said Luminar's systems won his team over with the promise of "long-range sensing capabilities," but other features have also proved impressive.
"Where this Lidar looks is reconfigurable," Eustice explained.
"If you want to know if that's a pedestrian or a car way in the distance? You can go get more data points from that particular region to become more confident in your data. It's sort of like zooming in. And you can't do that with other Lidars."
TRI has been conducting tests using Luminar's microchips, lasers and receivers, scanners and processors, packaged as a boxy sensor, that's smaller than a three-ring binder.
That testing can be a lot of fun, Eustice said, recalling Luminar and TRI staff dumping tires and bales of hay out of the back of a pickup truck on a closed test track.
Luminar currently has 350 employees, including in research and development in Palo Alto, California, and manufacturing in Orlando, Florida. It's raised $36 million from a group of investors, including Canvas Ventures, GVA and 1517 Fund.
This story has been updated to reflect that Luminar's R&D and manufacturing base is located in Orlando, near Florida's Space Coast.