Lidarland is buzzing with cheap, solid-state devices that are supposedly going to shoulder aside the buckets you see revolving atop today’s experimental driverless cars. Quanergy started this solid-state patter, a score of other startups continued it, and now Velodyne, the inventor of those rooftop towers, is talking the talk, too.
Not Luminar. This company, which emerged from stealth mode earlier this month, is fielding a 5-kilogram box with a window through which you can make out not microscopic MEMs mirrors, but two honking, macroscopic mirrors, each as big as an eye. Their movement—part of a secret-sauce optical arrangement—steers a pencil of laser light around a scene so that a single receiver can measure the distance to every detail.
“There’s nothing wrong with moving parts,” says Luminar founder and CEO Austin Russell. “There are a lot of moving parts in a car, and they last for a 100,000 miles or more.”
A key difference between Luminar and all the others is its reliance on home-made stuff rather than industry-standard parts. Most important is its use of indium gallium arsenide for the photodetector. This compound semiconductor is harder to manufacture and thus more expensive than silicon, but it can receive at a wavelength of 1550 nanometers, deep in the infrared part of the spectrum. That makes this wavelength much safer for human eyes than today’s standard wavelength, 905 nm. Luminar can thus pump out a beam with 40 times the power of rival sensors, increasing its resolution, particularly at 200 meters and beyond. That’s how far cars will have to see at highway speeds if they want to give themselves more than half a second to react to events.
The vast majority of companies in this space are integrating off-the-shelf components,” he says. “The same lasers, same receivers, same processors—and that’s why there have been no advances in lidar performance in a decade. Every couple of years a company says, ‘we have new lidar sensor, half the size, half the price, and oh, by the way, half the performance.’ The performance of the most expensive ones has stayed the same for practically a decade; all the newer ones are orders of magnitude worse.”