Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated Luminar’s timeline for producing Iris lidar units.
ORLANDO — In some respects, Austin Russell personifies a stereotypical Silicon Valley wunderkind.
He dropped out of Stanford University at age 18 to found a startup, Luminar, which develops lidar technology for automated vehicles. Over the past six years, investors have poured more than $250 million into the Palo Alto, Calif., company and made it a favorite of such automakers as Toyota and Volvo Cars.
In other respects, Russell, now 24, sounds like an auto industry veteran skeptical of all the grand self-driving pronouncements emanating from the Bay Area.
"How much of the technology that Silicon Valley has developed has actually made its way into series production cars at the end of the day? Basically nothing," he says. "There's not any vehicle on the road today. Hopefully, we're going to be changing that."
After years of building lidar units for r&d platforms, Luminar unveiled its first sensors tailored for series production this month. Called Iris, the units combine sensing and perception software on a single platform that has been three years in the making. Russell says the Iris lidar units offer automakers a turnkey system rather than one they have to cobble together on their own.
Those lidar units will be assembled starting next year at one of two production facilities Luminar has built in Orlando. That will go through 2022, at which time series production will begin with manufacturing partners. Orlando has emerged as a linchpin in the company's plans. Because of the area's longstanding ties to the defense and aerospace industries, Luminar can find the high-tech work force it needs to manufacture lidar at scale.
"We were able to staff a second shift here in about a month and a half," said Jason Eichenholz, 47, Luminar's chief technology officer. "The experience available in this area is unreal."
One reason for that lies practically across the street from Luminar at the University of Central Florida, which houses the College of Optics and Photonics, one of the few schools in the country that focuses its research on lasers and optic technology.
Down the road, the Iris units are slated to first appear across multiple consumer-focused car and truck production lines. Recent r&d applications have focused on fully self-driving robotaxis. Instead, the Iris units will appear in Level 2 driver-assist systems and as part of Level 3 systems that enable conditional automation on highways.
The industry's fresh focus on driver-assist markets may provide a bridge of sorts to production-ready lidar at price points that aren't prohibitive — Iris will sell at less than $1,000.
"The reality is this problem of Level 4 and 5 is really hard," Russell said. "We have to start with more constrained applications of autonomy, when you look at the driver-assistant market, that's one way to get the economies of scale needed to eventually make fully autonomous [vehicles] work."