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Volvo’s self-driving cars are getting new laser sensors to see the world

Lidar startup Luminar is on a bit of a hot streak. After announcing a major deal with Toyota, the company said it would be slashing costs and scaling up rapidly to meet the growing demand for its laser sensors that help self-driving cars “see” their surroundings. Now Luminar is lifting the curtain back on its next big automotive partner, Volvo Cars.

In addition to buying its lidar units from the startup, Volvo will also be making a “strategic investment” via its newly formed venture capital fund. Neither Volvo nor Luminar would disclose the amount, but Luminar CEO Austin Russell allowed that it was “substantial.”

“Sometimes we see a lot of companies trying to push out a press release about some partnership when it’s really like they sold one sensor that one time on to a test vehicle,” Russell told The Verge. “This here is a lot more substantial.”

In addition to Volvo and Toyota, Russell said that Luminar is working with two other automotive partners, but saving those names for a later date.

Luminar also has a new product on the market: 3D perception software to help label and annotate all the images captured by its lidar sensors. Russell said that a lot of self-driving operators are applying two-dimensional perception tools, data annotation and labeling software, and algorithms on what is “true 3D data.” Luminar’s new development platform will enable Volvo’s self-driving cars to process the data captured by the company’s high-powered lidar in a more advanced environment.

Volvo is certainly an interesting choice for Luminar, which is trying to position itself as a major player alongside lidar suppliers like Velodyne and Quanergy. Unlike some other OEMs, Volvo has been more closely guarded with its self-driving tests. The Chinese-owned automaker says it hopes to start production on its self-driving cars by 2021, working as part of a joint venture with safety-system supplier Autoliv and communications company Ericsson.

“You can easily see them as being one of the first to get real [self-driving] cars on the road at the end of the day,” Russell said of Volvo.

The announcement of the partnership with Luminar is significant because Volvo is focused on developing software for its self-driving cars while Autoliv is doing the hardware and Ericsson is providing connectivity features. The sale of Luminar’s development platform will likely boost that effort. Zenuity, the name of the Volvo-Autoliv-Ericsson venture, has also announced that it plans to use Nvidia compute platforms for its system.

In parallel, Volvo is planning to launch an audacious self-driving experiment with real people in Sweden driving cars equipped with the automaker’s advanced driver assistance system Pilot Assist, as well as additional sensors collecting data from inside and outside the car.

Drive Me was supposed to kick off in 2017, but now the company says it’s pushing the date to 2021, while also scaling back the number of cars involved. As of December 2017, only two vehicles had been delivered to families in Sweden with more expected in early 2018. And instead of getting fully driverless, Level 4-ready cars, participants will test the cars with the same Level 2 semi-autonomous assistance systems that are commercially available in Europe and the US.

There are no plans to incorporate Luminar technology in the Drive Me vehicles, said Gun Bengtsson, senior communication manager for safety and autonomous driving at Volvo Cars. “In this project Volvo is learning how people interact with existing driver assistance systems and future [autonomous driving] technologies and how AD can contribute to a sustainable mobility in a safe way,” Bengtsson added.

Luminar is ramping up at a crucial time in the self-driving business. Until recently, the only company that made reliable lidar was Velodyne. But that’s rapidly changing. Waymo, the self-driving unit of Alphabet, makes its own proprietary lidar and is aiming to reduce costs by 90 percent to just $7,500 per sensor. Cruise, the autonomous driving division of GM, recently acquired a startup called Strobe.

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