Luminar, a laser lidar startup led by one of the youngest U.S. billionaires, has a new partnership with Mercedes-Benz that includes supplying sensors for its luxury vehicles and gathering on-road data from them to improve automated driving. The German carmaker also bought a small stake in the tech company.
Luminar’s Iris lidar will be integrated into future Mercedes planned for its next-generation platform to improve safety and help them operate autonomously during highway driving, the companies said. Details including specific models that will use the sensor and when they’ll be available for sale to customers aren’t being disclosed. Mercedes also purchased 1.5 million Luminar shares as part of the partnership, founder and CEO Austin Russell, 26, tells Forbes.
“This is a big moment for us and kind of a landmark partnership that’s really validating the overall thesis that we’ve had,” he said. “The largest luxury automaker, the top of the food chain, is betting the future of their technology for autonomous systems and next-generation safety systems on us.”
The Mercedes alliance follows previous supply deals for Luminar including Volvo Cars, China’s SAIC and Daimler trucks, which also see lidar as a core technology for autonomous vehicles. The sensors use lasers to create 3D “point-cloud” maps of surrounding objects, in daylight or night, that enhance autonomous vehicles’ vision system, which also uses cameras and radar. Every major developer of self-driving technology relies on the sensor, with the exception of Elon Musk’s Tesla.
“Luminar is the perfect addition to our existing roster of first-class cooperations with leading and cutting–edge tech companies,” said Markus Schäfer, Mercedes’ chief technology officer for development and procurement. “Cooperation is an essential part of Mercedes-Benz’s strategy. Therefore, I am highly delighted to have Austin Russell and Luminar on board for our journey.”
Luminar’s supply deals, including the new one with Mercedes, focus on using lidar for personal vehicles, rather than for the robotaxis that Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, General Motors-backed Cruise and Amazon’s Zoox are developing. While those are for use mainly in urban settings, Luminar’s focus is optimizing its technology for autonomous highway driving, where lidar’s ability to see objects hundreds of meters ahead is critical.
The sensors also help improve over vehicle safety, said Russell, who is also a Forbes 30 Under 30 All-Star. “Much better automatic emergency braking, collision avoidance systems, those kinds of capabilities that can be had from this. It’s not just about autonomy, it’s about actually saving lives more generally with better active safety systems.”
Currently, Luminar is preparing to expand sensor production at its production facility in Orlando.