Luminar’s Blade sleekly integrates sensors directly into the frame of autonomous cars

Autonomous vehicles require a series of complex sensors. Luminar wants to make sure they get out of the way.

Autonomous vehicles being developed by the likes of Google’s Waymo and GM’s Cruise utilize a suite of complex sensors that feed a computer detailed information about the car’s surroundings. Some of those sensors are known to be quite large, which is why self-driving vehicles being tested today are easy to spot by the large hulking gadgetry on their roofs.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing — safety is more important than style. But a company called Luminar hopes to compete in the business of supplying sensor hardware to the automotive industry by designing systems that are sleek and svelte rather than ugly and obtrusive.

I spy with my hidden eyes — Luminar already creates a Lidar sensor called Iris, which can provide self-driving software with a three-dimensional map of a car’s surroundings. Lidar works by shooting out a laser beam and then measuring the time it takes for the light to be reflected back off objects in front of it, giving a sense of depth and distance. Most companies developing autonomous driving technology consider Lidar integral to their systems.

A prototype of Luminar’s lidar sensors integrated into the windshield of a Toyota Rav4. Luminar

Luminar’s Iris sensor is slim at just two inches tall — Chinese autonomous vehicle startup recently announced it will use the Iris in its fleet. But the company is now unveiling a complementary product called the Blade that is a fully integrated housing system for self-driving sensors. The Blade integrates into the windshield of a car, providing improved aesthetics and better aerodynamics. It can accommodate up to four Lidar sensors plus other sensors like cameras.

The Blade is making its first production debut in the 2022 Volvo XC90. The vehicle will include just a single forward-facing Lidar sensor to be used in Volvo’s assisted driving system. That’s not enough for full-self driving, where multiple sensors are likely needed. But more sensors could of course be integrated into the Blade if a company like Waymo wanted to use the system. Luminar has developed a variant for long-haul trucks that features two winglets that extend out on either side of the cab to provide a full 360-degree view.

Google’s Waymo cars have quite large sensors. But the company is concerned more on making the self-driving software work than how the vehicles look. GLENN CHAPMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Sensors — Tesla CEO Elon Musk is the lone outlier when it comes to self-driving technology, adamant that standard cameras and artificial intelligence software alone are sufficient to create a vehicle that can drive itself. His company’s Autopilot software has demonstrated less than stellar performance in testing, however.

Industry experts argue that a suite of varying sensors is necessary for the purposes of redundancy and because they can provide greater depth of information. Whereas a standard two-dimensional camera can recognize lane markings, Lidar can complement it by seeing the road ahead through fog or other conditions where a camera or other optical solutions would struggle. A perfect system, experts say, would weigh data from several sensors to decide how the car should act.

Waymo and others in the space likely haven’t bothered too much worrying about the aesthetics of their sensors, as getting cars to drive on par with humans remains the biggest challenge. That company just announced it has raised $2.5 billion in new funding to help make it happen. Cruise also yesterday secured $5 billion to buy vehicles for an eventual self-driving taxi network.

Luminar is a publicly traded company and has raised more than $1 billion since being founded in 2012.