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Toyota is trusting a startup for a crucial part of its newest self-driving cars

It’s a vote of confidence for lidar maker Luminar, facing competition from behemoths like Velodyne.

Luminar’s lidar on top of a car.
Luminar’s lidar on top of a car.

A startup that makes a key sensor for self-driving cars just got a vote of confidence from a major automaker.

Luminar, which launched in April 2017 with $36 million in funding, announced it is working with Toyota’s research arm, Toyota Research Institute, on the company’s newest version of its autonomous platform.

Toyota unveiled the next generation of its self-driving platform today, which features more accurate object detection technology and mapping, among other advancements.

These test cars — which Toyota is testing on both a closed driving course and on some public roads — will also be using Luminar’s lidar sensors, or radars that use lasers to detect the distance to an object.

As the self-driving industry progresses, investors and automakers are turning their attention away from the main component of the system — the brains — and focusing on the other ingredients that enable a car to drive itself. Most consider lidar a key ingredient to building a fully functioning self-driving car.

Competition among companies to build the brains of a driverless car — like Alphabet’s Waymo and GM’s Cruise — is stiff. Alongside that, there’s a race between startups to create lidar for self-driving, one aspect of the eyes of the system. So far, Velodyne appears to be in the lead.

With few exceptions, practically every company with driverless car ambitions has used Velodyne lidars at some point or another.

Ford (which invested in Velodyne), Uber, Waymo, Otto and others have all used the company’s lidar. While Waymo and Uber are working on developing their own lidars — this is now at the center of a blockbuster trade secret misappropriation lawsuit — many companies continue to turn to Velodyne, which has proven that it’s capable of manufacturing lidars for the hundred or so cars that companies are testing at a time.

That’s why it’s a big deal that Toyota’s research group, headed up by noted self-driving engineer Gill Pratt, has chosen to work with Luminar, even in the limited capacity that the companies are working together today.

What Luminar’s lidar sees as its driving along Market St in San Francisco.
What Luminar’s lidar sees as its driving along Market St in San Francisco.

Luminar, co-founded by 22-year-old entrepreneur Austin Russell, launched out of stealth after five years with ambitious plans. Backed by Canvas Ventures, GVA Capital and 1517 Fund among others, Russell told Recode he has plans to begin to manufacture 10,000 lidar units by the end of the year.

Luminar’s technology uses a single laser that moves back and forth quickly to detect objects past 200 meters or about 656 feet — which Russell claims is 10 times the range of many lidars out there — with 50 times better resolution. In other words, Russell says Luminar lidars can not only detect objects much farther away but can also more accurately recognize objects.

“We’re quite excited about some of the features it offers, particularly the longer-range sensing,” TRI CTO James Kuffner told Recode. “About two football fields at 10 percent reflectivity is quite impressive and it will give us better capability.”

TRI wouldn’t comment on how many cars Luminar’s new system is integrated into but said that they have plans to use the Luminar lidar in future generations of its self-driving systems.

“We think we may have built the most perceptive vehicle for this autonomy that has ever been built,” TRI CTO James Kuffner told Recode. “Going forward we’re expanding out fleet and TRI and Luminar has plans to integrate next-generation systems into our [new] systems.”

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