Just a few decades ago, self-driving cars could be seen only in TV shows and films, driven by the likes of Michael Knight, Bruce Wayne and Marty McFly. Those of us watching those heroes’ stories hoped that one day our own cars might double as “partners in crime” in our adventures. And now that day could be just around the corner. However, before we can replicate KITT, the Batmobile or maybe someday even the DeLorean time machine, researchers first have to develop the technology to ensure passengers of autonomous vehicles arrive safely at their destinations. That means self-driving cars not only have to detect obstacles, they have to do so with an intuition that up until this point only their human operators possessed.“The biggest challenge is how well the cars can see the world around them,” said Jason Eichenholz, co-founder and chief technology officer of Orlando-based Luminar Technologies. “They need to be able to see around themselves in 3D, the way humans do. Most radar can’t understand the difference between a firetruck and a road sign. The average autonomous vehicle might be safe 99 percent of the time. We need to make sure we can cover that last 1 percent.”
That is exactly what Luminar has been working on behind the scenes of the competitive autonomous vehicle movement in the past few years. Its team has been laying the groundwork for a safer, more efficient future for the automotive industry.
Behind the Technology
Luminar’s LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology relies on infrared lasers that travel the distance between the car and its environment, creating a 3D map of the car’s surroundings. Built using indium gallium arsenide, instead of the usual silicon, Luminar is able to operate at 1550 nanometers wavelength and construct a technology that is safer, more cost effective, and with a longer range than others in the industry.
“Our wavelength allows us to see 50 times higher resolution and 10 times farther out, and still be eye-safe,” Eichenholz said. “At 200 meters, our technology can detect low- reflectivity objects, like someone wearing a black hoodie, not just white clothing, with a seven-second reaction time at highway speed.” By comparison, today’s self-driving cars only offer a less than one- second reaction time at 75 miles an hour.
At the root of Luminar’s sci-fi movie-like tech is a compassion rooted very much in improving people’s lives today. Whether that be a commuter looking to get some work done on the way to the office, or someone who may otherwise have limited mobility or difficulty driving, the goal of an autonomous vehicle is to create a better, more accessible world for all.
“This is also very personal to me,” Eichenholz said. “I have aging parents, and I don’t necessarily want to have that conversation about possibly taking away their car keys. We can fundamentally change their lives and help them reclaim the time that’s theirs.”
Luminar has built its team to nearly 400 in the past 1.5 years in Central Florida as well as Silicon Valley and Colorado Springs. The Orlando location was key to being able to bring the technology to scale.
“LiDAR has been used for decades in remote sensing,” Eichenholz said. “The fundamental technology that enables LiDAR was developed in Orlando, with companies like Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Harris.”
Eichenholz and his co-founder, CEO Austin Russell, saw the value in the technology’s ties to the area and the potential for future innovation. They point to the University of Central Florida (UCF) Business Incubator program, which has helped foster a cluster of businesses specializing in photonics technology, as well as the Orlando Regional Tech Association and other assets. “There is so much talent here,” Eichenholz said.
With a 125,000-square-foot engineering and research facility located in Central Florida Research Park adjacent to UCF, Luminar continues to grow. The company began scaling production to a capacity of 5,000 units a quarter by the end of the year and entered a partnership with Toyota and Volvo — good news for people hoping to get their hands on an autonomous vehicle of their own.
“It was predicted it could be 25 years before autonomous vehicles could be as safe as humans,” Eichenholz said. “With our tech, we can accelerate that.