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autonomous vehicles

Luminar eyes production vehicles with $100M round and new Iris lidar platform

Luminar eyes production vehicles with $100M round and new Iris lidar platform

July 11, 2019

Luminar is one of the major players in the new crop of lidar companies that have sprung up all over the world, and it’s moving fast to outpace its peers. Today the company announced a new $100 million funding round, bringing its total raised to more than $250 million — as well as a perception platform and a new, compact lidar unit aimed at inclusion in actual cars. Big day!

The new hardware, called Iris, looks to be about a third of the size of the test unit Luminar has been sticking on vehicles thus far. That one was about the size of a couple hardbacks stacked up, and Iris is more like a really thick sandwich.

Size is very important, of course, as few cars just have caverns of unused space hidden away in prime surfaces like the corners and windshield area. Other lidar makers have lowered the profiles of their hardware in various ways; Luminar seems to have compactified in a fairly straightforward fashion, getting everything into a package smaller in every dimension.

Test model, left, Iris on the right.

Photos of Iris put it in various positions: below the headlights on one car, attached to the rear-view mirror in another and high up atop the cabin on a semi truck. It’s small enough that it won’t have to displace other components too much, although of course competitors are aiming to make theirs even more easy to integrate. That won’t matter, Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell told me recently, if they can’t get it out of the lab.

“The development stage is a huge undertaking — to actually move it towards real-world adoption and into true series production vehicles,” he said (…

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The future of autonomous vehicles runs off roads and on to farms, construction sites and mines

The future of autonomous vehicles runs off roads and on to farms, construction sites and mines

July 10, 2019

Fully self-driving passenger cars are not “just around the corner.” While the well-capitalized leaders — funded by corporations, multibillion-dollar VC funds or advertising revenue — are on more stable financial ground, many other full-stack autonomous vehicle startups may be looking for the off-ramp.

With no clear path to funds outside of venture capital, full-stack startups face two options: 1) get acquired for the talent and technology or 2) close shop. Cruise and Argo AI were big startup exits. Daimler Trucks acquired Torc Robotics (which did not follow the VC-startup model). And nuTonomy was marketed as a $450 million acquisition by Delphi/Aptiv.

But the most recent VC-backed valuations for some AV startups have stagnated at or below the $450 million mark, which doesn’t give much upside from their previous valuations in the height of the AV fervor. Without much further upside, it is more likely that many passenger car AV companies will close shop.

Full-stack autonomous passenger vehicle startups are dead.

But wait…

Passenger car autonomy projects attracted a lot of capital and top talent in the past decade and produced tremendous technological advances in autonomous perception, path planning and control. What happens to the talent and technology when the passenger AV bubble bursts?

Well, there are more vehicles than just passenger cars. The DARPA Grand Challenge held over a decade ago is cited as the catalyst behind the GoogleX self-driving car project and the explosion of passenger car AVs. The advances made during the challenges …

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Startups at the speed of light: Lidar CEOs put their industry in perspective

Startups at the speed of light: Lidar CEOs put their industry in perspective

June 29, 2019

As autonomous cars and robots loom over the landscapes of cities and jobs alike, the technologies that empower them are forming sub-industries of their own. One of those is lidar, which has become an indispensable tool to autonomy, spawning dozens of companies and attracting hundreds of millions in venture funding.

But like all industries built on top of fast-moving technologies, lidar and the sensing business is by definition built somewhat upon a foundation of shifting sands. New research appears weekly advancing the art, and no less frequently are new partnerships minted, as car manufacturers like Audi and BMW scramble to keep ahead of their peers in the emerging autonomy economy.

To compete in the lidar industry means not just to create and follow through on difficult research and engineering, but to be prepared to react with agility as the market shifts in response to trends, regulations, and disasters.

I talked with several CEOs and investors in the lidar space to find out how the industry is changing, how they plan to compete, and what the next few years have in store.

Their opinions and predictions sometimes synced up and at other times diverged completely. For some, the future lies manifestly in partnerships they have already established and hope to nurture, while others feel that it’s too early for automakers to commit, and they’re stringing startups along one non-exclusive contract at a time.

All agreed that the technology itself is obviously important, but not so important that investors will wait forever for engineers to get it out of the lab.

And while some felt a sensor company has no business building a full-stack autonomy solution, others suggested that’s the only way to attract customers navigating a strange new market.

It’s a flourishing market but one, they all agreed, that will experience …

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