Volvo, Luminar take big step in autonomous car development

LOS ANGELES — Volvo Cars and U.S. technology company Luminar say they have achieved a key advancement in lidar sensing and perception, a technology regarded as essential to making self-driving cars safe.

Volvo aims to have zero fatalities in any of its new models starting in 2020 and targets having autonomous vehicles make up one-third of its deliveries by 2025.

Luminar’s solution that it is developing with Volvo can detect human poses including individual limbs such as arms and legs, a level of detail not previously possible using lidar.

The new technology can also detect objects at a range of up to 250 meters (820 feet), compared with an estimated 30 meters to 40 meters from lidar systems that are currently available, Luminar CEO and founder Austin Russell said.

“At 250 meters the system can see 7.5 seconds ahead compared with a second ahead for other systems. That way you can operate at high speed,” Russell told Automotive News Europe.

Volvo r&d head Henrik Green said the advance is crucial because the automaker wants to offer unsupervised highway driving capability on the third-generation XC90, which is due in 2021.

The XC90, Volvo’s flagship SUV, will be underpinned by Level 4-capable second-generation Scalable Product Architecture (SPA2). At Level 4 autonomy, a car can drive itself but still has a steering wheel and pedals so that the driver can take control when needed.

“Perception is the cornerstone to solving the the autonomous drive problem in a safe way,” Green said in an interview. “You need to see the object, understand what it is and, most importantly, predict the intent of that object.”


2021 series production

Russell said Luminar’s aim is to have the advanced lidar technology ready for series production as early as 2021 so that Volvo can offer a system that “can ultimately take the driver out of the loop” without any instances where the system falsely identifies a problem and forces the driver to take over.

Volvo, which invested in the Palo Alto, California-based company in June as part of its recently launched tech fund, is the first of Luminar’s partners to fully leverage its expanded perception development platform, the companies said. However, they emphasized there is still a lot of work to do.

“Now we have to develop the software and the intelligence that can use this perception technology to actually identify millions of different objects and understand the intentions of those objects,” Green said. “We have a huge workload ahead of us.”

Russell said: “This is just one of 50 different things that you can now do with this platform. The breakthrough is what this is now capable of going forward.”

Luminar’s lidar technology will also be a key to making Volvo’s first vision for a fully autonomous, fully electric model, the 360c concept, a reality. Safety is imperative for the vehicle, given that the 360c does not have a steering wheel.

Volvo sees its 360c concept as an alternative for short-haul air travel, a business worth multi-billion dollars. The 360c shows four potential uses of autonomous vehicles — a sleeping environment, mobile office, living room and entertainment space.

Volvo and Luminar announced the lidar advance  during an automotive technology conference that is part of the show here. They also showed how the system works in this video.

Displays highlighting the 360c’s multiple options will figure prominently on Volvo’s stand at the show. Volvo decided not to present any vehicles this year to underline that the massive disruption the automotive industry is undergoing requires a fresh approach.

“We are trying to shift our focus from doing what we have done for the last 90 years,” Volvo Senior Vice President of Corporate Strategy Marten Levenstam. “Now is the time to really do different things in a different way.”

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