At TC Sessions: Mobility today, Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell admitted that his now-successful company was founded in hubris, but a skeptical look during the peak lidar hype helped them focus on real markets. “It’s no longer about a theoretical promise – you really need to show real results, real deliveries, real technology and product. Too many promises have been made that have been broken.”
In an interview with businesstraverse.com transportation editor Kirsten Korosec, Russell noted that, like pretty much everyone else, he was convinced early on that self-driving cars were just around the corner. (Quotations have been slightly edited for clarity.)
“The reality is that I think the sheer complexity of solving an end-to-end autonomous driving problem in urban environments was underestimated in terms of difficulty by at least a few orders of magnitude,” he said. “When something is at the peak of the hype cycle, you have to be skeptical about it. There was just a huge gap between the core engineers behind the actual technology and the leadership at the time in terms of what was possible. †
It was in 2017, he recalls, that the company made the decision to pursue other applications for high-end lidar technology: “It became very clear that the level of requirements for an R&D test platform, compared to a real series production vehicle, very different game altogether The huge roof racks you see are $100,000 and a supercomputer in the trunk…it must be more like $1,000 And besides, economies of scale are fundamentally needed to be able to build a product, the cost is ultimately an important factor.”
The question didn’t become one of the raw possibilities or even just the cost, but what would consumers, and by extension OEMs, pay for? Safety. And it turns out that even the best ADAS and collision avoidance technology is currently sorely lacking.
“It’s surprising to see how ineffective today’s driver assistance systems are, just in being able to do basic things like…not crashing into the thing right in front of you in your car, right? Sounds like a simple problem, like you don’t even need lidar for that,” he said. “But the reality is it’s a lot more complicated, a lot harder than that — to even understand with confidence what’s going on around you and come to a safe stop is not a solved problem.”
The company has compiled numerous examples of these failures, one of which went viral in which a small fake pedestrian was plowed over by an ADAS-equipped car. The combination of robo-taxis being much further out than expected and ADAS systems as both desirable and inept seems to be driving mainstream automakers to invest heavily in something better.
“The transformation is that this is no longer an option on a high-end, niche vehicle,” he explained. “This is something that is going to have a chance to really go mainstream, in the mass market… Nissan, they actually showed off crash avoidance scenarios enabled by Luminar lidar; in their case, they basically said they were against it. end of the decade looking to standardize this kind of technology on every vehicle they build, which I think is probably faster than any major technology adoption cycle, not for the first adoption, but full standardization across the lineup.”
There will of course be more Luminar-powered cars on the market: “Within the next 12 months, there will be series-production cars equipped with luminar that move this industry forward,” confirmed Russell.
However, it’s funny to think that a company that grew out of a plan to age traditional vehicles has become the biggest proponent of using them in those vehicles. But early recognition of the industry’s future made all the difference.
“We probably shouldn’t have existed,” Russell said when asked to participate in the hype cycle that he later distanced himself from. “There’s no reason why any of the Googles, Apples, all the major automakers and other things, in a theoretical world, couldn’t have done exactly what we did.”
“But the reason we were able to build this company, this technology, this product and lead the industry with this is just because we had a very different point of view. I think what’s the title here [i.e. the name of the panel]the contrarian view,” he said with a laugh.
As for another contrarian view, Elon Musk’s oft-repeated hostage-taking that lidar isn’t necessary and Tesla will get by without it, Russell also took it in good spirits:
“If someone didn’t go out and say, ‘This is a stupid message, this shouldn’t exist, we made the right decision and we’re holding onto our guns!’…that’s the irony of all these things. It really only draws attention to what’s important, because you don’t say that until you’re really aware of it.”