The race to bring self-driving cars to showrooms may have a new leader: Volvo Cars said it will partner with Silicon Valley–based lidar manufacturer Luminar to deliver genuine hands-free, eyes-off-the-road highway driving beginning in 2022. That so-called Level 3 capability would be an industry first, as companies from Tesla to Uber thus far have failed to meet lofty promises to make autonomous driving a reality.
Sweden’s Volvo, owned by Geely Holdings of China, said that models based on its upcoming SPA2 platform (for Scalable Product Architecture) will be hardware-enabled for Luminar’s roof-mounted lidar system. That includes the upcoming Polestar 3 from Volvo’s new electric-car division, and a range of Volvo-branded cars and SUVs. Henrik Green, chief technology officer for Volvo, said the optional Highway Pilot system would allow full autonomous driving, but only “when the car determines it is safe to do so.”
“At that point, your Volvo takes responsibility for the driving and you can relax, take your eyes off the road and your hands off the wheel,” Green said. “Over time, updates over-the-air will expand the areas in which the car can drive itself. For us, a safe introduction of autonomy is a gradual introduction.”
Luminar’s lidar system scans a car’s surroundings in real time, firing millions of pulses of light to create a virtual 3D map without relying on GPS or a network connection. Most experts agree that lidar is a critical linchpin of any truly autonomous car. A high-profile skeptic is Elon Musk, who has no plans to employ lidar in his Teslas, and scoffs at the technology as redundant and unnecessary.
Austin Russell, founder and chief executive of Luminar, disagrees.
“If cameras could do everything you can do with lidar, great. But if you really want to get in the autonomous game, this is a clear requirement.”
Austin Russell, founder and CEO of Luminar Photo: Luminar
The 25-year-old Russell said his company’s high-performance lidar sensors, operating at 1,550 nanometers and 64 lines of resolution, can spot even small and low-reflective objects—black cars, animals, a child darting across a road—at a range beyond 250 meters, and up to 500 meters for larger, brighter objects. The high-signal, low-noise system can deliver camera-level vision at 250 meters even in rain, fog, or snow, he said. That range, Russell said, is critical to give cars the data and time to solve edge cases and make confident decisions, even when hurtling at freeway speeds.
“Right now, you don’t have reliable interpretation,” with camera, GPS, or radar systems, Russell said. “You can guess what’s ahead of you 99 percent of the time, but the problem is that last 1 percent. And a 99-percent pedestrian detection rate doesn’t cut it, not remotely close.”
In a Zoom interview from Palo Alto, Calif., Russell held up two prototype versions, a roof-mounted unit roughly the size of a TV cable box, and a smaller unit that would mount on bumpers. The elegant systems incorporate a single laser and receiver, rather than the bulky, expensive, stacked arrays of lower-performance systems. Luminar built all its components and software in-house, Russell said, and is already on its eighth generation of ASIC chip controllers.
The roof-mounted unit can deliver 120 degrees of forward vision, Russell said, plenty for Volvo’s application that combines lidar with cameras, radar, backup GPS and electrically controlled steering and braking. For future robotaxi applications with no human pilot aboard, cars would combine three to five lidar sensors to deliver full 360-degree vision. The unit will also integrate with Volvo’s Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), improving such features as automated emergency braking, which global automakers have agreed to make standard in virtually all vehicles by 2022.
The range and performance, Russell said, is key to solving the conundrums that have frustrated autonomous developers.
The industry has hit a wall, unable to make the technical leap to Level 3, with cars so secure in their abilities that owners could perform tasks such as texting or reading (while remaining capable of taking back the wheel after a decent grace period, should the car alert them to impending trouble). Last week, Audi officially quit its longstanding claims that its new A8 sedan would do just that, with its Traffic Jam Pilot system. Musk is luring consumers to pay US $7,000 up-front for “Full Self-Driving” features that have yet to materialize, and that he claims would allow them to use their Teslas as money-making robotaxis.
Current Level 2 systems, including Tesla’s Autopilot and Cadillac’s SuperCruise, often disengage when they can’t safely process their surroundings. Those disengagements, or even their possibility, demand that drivers continue to pay attention to the road at all times. And when systems do work effectively, drivers can fall out of the loop and be unable to quickly retake control. Russell acknowledged that those limitations leave current systems feeling like a parlor trick: If a driver must still pay full attention to the road, why not just keep driving the old-fashioned way?
“Assuming perfect use, it’s fine as a novelty or convenience,” Russell said. “But it’s easy to get lulled into a sense of safety. Even when you’re really trying to maintain attention, to jump back into the game is very difficult.”
Ideally, Russell said, a true Level 3 system would operate for years and hundreds of thousands of miles and never disengage without generous advance warning.
“From our perspective, spontaneous handoffs that require human intervention are not safe,” he said. “It can’t be, ‘Take over in 500 milliseconds or I’m going to run into a wall.’”
One revolution of Level 3, he said, is that drivers would actually begin to recover valuable time for productivity, rest, or relaxation. The other is safety, and the elusive dream of sharply reducing roadway crashes that kill 1.35 million people a year around the world.
Volvo cautioned that its Highway Pilot, whose price is up in the air, would initially roll out in small volumes, and steadily expand across its lineup. Volvo’s announcement included an agreement to possibly increase its minority stake in Luminar. But Luminar said it is also working with 12 of the world’s top 15 automakers in various stages of lidar development. And Russell said that, whichever manufacturer makes them, lidar-based safety and self-driving systems will eventually become an industry standard.
“Driving adoption throughout the larger industry is the right move,” he said. “That’s how you save the most lives and create the most value.”
This post was corrected on 22 May 2020 to note that Level 3 autonomy requires that the driver be prepared to take back the wheel.