LAS VEGAS — Riding along Interstate 15 at dusk, you can see the sun set behind the mountains and canyons west of Las Vegas, casting brilliant hues of purple and pink, red and orange, across the desert floor.
But instead of looking outside, Austin Russell admires the view on the screen in front of him.
“This looks great,” said Russell, the founder and CEO of Luminar, a lidar technology company. “This is the first time I’ve really seen this.”
He examines the point cloud produced on the screen by his company’s latest product, Hydra, which combines sensing, software and computing into a single platform tailor-made for exactly these sorts of highway environments.
The technology underpinning Hydra allows automated systems to detect and classify objects out to a distance of 250 meters, and the software is optimized for highway environments. It’s targeted at companies seeking to enable driver-assist features or highway pilots involving Level 3 and 4 systems.
With a realization throughout the industry that more comprehensive applications of autonomy remain far off, Russell says applications geared toward niche environments such as highways are a way to meet today’s market demands.
“That’s the only way to get real cars on real roads in a near-term time frame, as opposed to this being a decade-plus problem,” he said.
Hydra, which ships to customers this quarter, was among a number of notable lidar-related unveilings at CES this month.
Among the others: Ouster showcased its OS0, a lidar sensor with a 90-degree field of view. The company says the technology was developed in collaboration with automaker and Tier 1 clients. It’s comparable to the Laser Bear Honeycomb lidar that Waymo developed in-house, and it allows customers to customize and configure beam spacing.
Elsewhere around CES, Velodyne introduced a new CEO and a new product — the Velabit, a $100 lidar sensor the company says can detect objects at a range of 100 meters and easily integrate into a variety of driver-assist and AV applications.
While each is tailored for different environments and applications, what might be remembered most from CES may not be products, but a shift in business model.
Luminar says it’s shying away from selling sensors and instead will sell subscriptions to its lidar services.
Russell says it’s a “natural progression” that better reflects the ongoing software development that Luminar does to improve features with customers as they become available.
Jeffrey Hannah, director of North America for technology research company SBD Automotive, says the new subscription model is a “reflection of an increasingly brutal lidar space,” where “market players are seeking any type of differentiation.”
Luminar has developed one additional feature with Hydra that might differentiate it from competitors that also make amplitude-modulated lidar: The technology can now determine the three-dimensional velocity of those targets.
Gathering velocity information from lidar traditionally was an arduous engineering challenge — and one that only companies working on frequency-modulated, continuous-wave approaches have achieved.
Doing so with amplitude-modulated lidars, such as the ones Luminar makes, is something of a breakthrough. Russell says the company cracked the velocity conundrum with a special scanning pattern that measures how the distance from an object has changed between pulses, and it gives automakers a new trove of information.
“It’s a pretty cool functionality,” he said. “And we’re getting it without trade-offs on performance and cost. It’s pretty crazy.”