April 13, 2017 / 12:06 PM / 4 months ago

Self-driving start-up set to roll out first laser sensors

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Luminar, a Silicon Valley start-up, is getting ready to manufacture its laser-based sensor for self-driving cars, a key component that would improve vehicle safety, the company said on Thursday.

Founded in 2012 by two photonics experts, Luminar has kept a low profile in the race between automakers, startups and major technology companies to roll out self-driving cars for the masses.

Luminar is ramping up a manufacturing facility in Orlando, Florida, for its first run of 10,000 Lidar sensors later this year, Chief Executive Austin Russell said in an interview.

Lidar, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, shoots out light pulses that are reflected off objects, allowing self-driving cars to "see" their environment. Many self-driving experts regard it as a crucial component, along with other sensors such as cameras and radars.

Lidar has been the subject of an ongoing trade secrets lawsuit between Alphabet Inc (GOOGL.O) unit Waymo and Uber.

Waymo alleges that a former employee stole intellectual property about its Lidar system that was later copied by Uber.

Russell said Lidars for self-driving cars on the market were developed from hardware that existed before autonomous cars. Their limitations in range and resolution make them unfit for the safe rollout of self-driving cars, he noted.

Luminar addresses those shortfalls by using a 1550 nanometer wavelength that provides 50 times greater resolution and 10 times the range of the best rival Lidars, Russell said.

That means a car can "see" a black object with reflectivity of 10 percent clearly from 200 meters away, he said. By contrast, the so-called "Puck" Lidar from Velodyne, a company that makes most of the Lidar used in self-driving prototypes today, has a range of 100 meters.

Russell said four companies, including automakers and technology firms which he did not identify, were testing their products on prototype driverless cars.

Russell said manufacturers should focus on perfecting Lidar's capabilities instead of lowering prices to make self-driving cars more affordable for the public.

"As price comes down, performance comes down with it," he said.

Reporting by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Richard Chang

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