For some context, most “autonomous” cars currently can only achieve L0 or L1 automation. Tesla and Cadillac are currently leading the pack with L2. Audi recently tried to venture into L3 before giving up on it due to regulatory and moral issues.
As it turns out, partial automation is quite tricky. Can the driver completely let go and watch a movie or play a video game, knowing he might need to interfere at some point? Perhaps more importantly, how do we decide when the AI should make the decisions and when to leave them up to humans?
To avoid dealing with such difficult questions, automakers like Volvo, Toyota, Ford and Waymo have decided to skip L3 entirely and focus on L4 instead, which is almost entirely autonomous. This allows the driver to have piece of mind knowing they won’t (and likely can’t) interfere. It also makes driver-less vehicles more reliable and safe.
Why is it taking so long?
Until now, no combination of sensors has been reliable enough to no longer require a human driver. Audi was the first to experiment with LIDAR tech, but their implementation was still rudimentary.
Cost has also been a highly prohibitive factor. LIDAR systems can cost up to $75,000 to place in a car, which is already much higher than the price of many consumer vehicles. Luminar has found a way to reduce that cost down to $500, which makes the technology a lot more viable for mainstream adoption.
An additional cost saving measure will be the removal of driver monitoring systems. Currently, Teslas and other semi-autonomous cars have systems in place to ensure the driver’s attention is on the road. These systems naturally have a cost, and are no longer a factor with level 4 and 5 automation.
Unlike the massive implementation featured in our previous article, Luminar’s weighs under two pounds with a range of 250-500 meters. This allows for the inclusion of several units to map as much as possible of the surroundings.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has famously called LIDAR technology “a crutch”, predicting that “anyone relying on LIDAR is doomed. Doomed. Expensive sensors that are unnecessary. It’s like having a whole bunch of expensive appendices… you’ll see.
The cost reduction may prove Musk wrong. Volvo’s CTO Henrik Green said that conventional camera and radar systems “lack the accuracy and distance” of LIDAR, and the ability to see through different weather and light conditions.