14 Jun 2018
First strategic investment by the auto firm’s new tech fund goes to the California-headquartered developer of high-performance lidar systems.
Volvo Cars has completed the first strategic investment via its newly founded auto technology fund by acquiring a stake in the high-performance lidar developer Luminar.
The deal, for an undisclosed sum, follows the $36 million venture round closed by Luminar in April 2017, and last year’s collaboration with Toyota’s US-based research institute to trial the emerging technology. Luminar says that it is also working with two other major automotive OEMs that are yet to be disclosed.
One of the key attributes of Luminar’s approach to lidar is its use of 1550 nm lasers and high-performance indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs) detectors. In terms of sensing range and detail, the much higher photon budget at 1550 nm yields a huge advantage over more typically shorter-wavelength systems – but comes with the trade-off of more expensive hardware.
Commenting on the Volvo deal, the car company’s senior VP of research and development Henrik Green said: “Lidar is a key technology for enabling autonomous cars to navigate safely in complex traffic environments and at higher speeds. Our collaboration with Luminar allows us to learn more about its promising technologies and takes Volvo Cars one step further to the highly autonomous cars of the future.”
Zaki Fasihuddin, CEO of the firm’s new tech fund, added: “Luminar Technologies represents exactly the type of company and technology we seek to invest in, providing us with strategic access to new technologies, capabilities and talent.
“Supporting promising young firms that are at the forefront of technological development will help us introduce cutting-edge technology that strengthens our leading role in the industry.”
Responding to the new Volvo deal, Luminar’s CEO Austin Russell said: “Volvo is at the forefront of autonomous vehicle development, and their safety-centric approach to autonomy is directly aligned with our sensing capabilities.”
He continued: “Our lidar is the first to deliver the necessary performance to enable safe and reliable long-range perception, which is required to unlock their goals of autonomy at highway speeds.”
For Russell and his colleagues, the required safety level translates to lidar providing perception up to 250 meters into the distance, as well as being able to differentiate between various types of dark objects - something that has typically proved challenging for lidar equipment to achieve.
“Over the past year, Luminar created 3D lidar data infrastructure, labeling, and annotation tools to take full advantage of the new level of data quality produced by its sensors,” added Luminar in its announcement of the Volvo investment.
“Data sharing and close collaboration will be equally important for those developing their self-driving software on top of the Luminar data to quickly accelerate safe autonomy vehicle deployments. Volvo Cars is the first of Luminar’s partners to fully leverage its expanded platform.”
Volvo also pointed out that the startups with which its tech fund is working will benefit from the firm’s access to the Chinese car market, now the world’s largest, as well as potential access to Volvo’s global network of automotive and technology partners.
The Volvo news comes just a couple of months after Luminar announced a deal to buy US-based Black Forest Engineering, which specializes in InGaAs receivers and will help Luminar’s current drive to ramp production and reduce the cost of its 1550 nm lidar systems.
Last month, analysts at France-based Yole Développement predicted that the market for lidar technology in automotive applications would reach $5 billion by 2023, with dozens of companies entering the fray in recent years. Along with AEye, Luminar is one of the only protagonists to utilize the 1550 nm wavelength.