Most new cars sold today include a bevy of sensors such as cameras and radar to help power modern conveniences like automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping assist. Very few automakers, however, sell cars with the high-powered laser sensor known as LIDAR, and for good reason: most LIDAR are ridiculously expensive, with the leading suppliers pricing theirs at around $75,000. But now, Volvo says it has found a LIDAR maker that can produce the sensors cheap enough to justify installing them on its consumer vehicles — which it says will allow these cars to drive themselves.
In 2018, Volvo made a “strategic investment” in a little-known Florida-based LIDAR company called Luminar to use the startup’s high-resolution long-range sensor to build self-driving cars. Today, Volvo is announcing that new LIDAR-equipped cars, which the Swedish automaker says will be able to drive themselves on highways with no human intervention, will start rolling off the production line in 2022.
It’s an ambitious plan that carries its own risks and sets Volvo apart from its competitors, many of which are planning to launch self-driving technology as part of fleets of robotaxis rather than production cars for personal ownership. They argue this will help amortize the costs of not just the LIDAR, but also the high-powered computing power needed to enable self-driving cars. But Volvo believes that by limiting the operational domain — or conditions under which the car can drive autonomously — to just highways, it is creating vehicle technology that is not only safer, but less costly as well.
“We are saying that for a particular stretch of highway, we are aiming for an unsupervised experience,” Henrik Green, Volvo’s chief technology officer, told The Verge. “Our view is that by isolating the domain to particular sets of highways, which we can control and verify, we believe that’s the safe entry into autonomous technology and autonomous experience for users.”
Volvo says it will roll out its self-driving highway feature, dubbed “Highway Pilot,” as part of its next big platform update, the Scalable Product Architecture (SPA2), which will arrive with the next-generation XC90 SUV in 2022. SPA2 will also underpin the automaker’s upcoming electric vehicles, the Polestar 3 SUV and the XC40 Recharge.
Based on Volvo’s description, Highway Pilot sounds like a beefed-up version of popular advanced driver assist systems (ADAS) like Tesla’s Autopilot or Cadillac’s Super Cruise. The big difference, though, is those systems require drivers to “stay in the loop,” or pay attention to the road in the off chance they will need to take control, while Volvo’s won’t require the same level of attention. With Luminar’s third-generation Iris LIDAR, along with a suite of other sensors and a robust mapping component, Volvo’s cars purport to drive completely autonomously, without any human input. This means that Highway Pilot won’t need a robust driver monitoring system to ensure driver attention, Green said.
“On those particular validated stretches of highway, the point is that the driver is no longer in the loop,” he said, “and therefore, for that particular part of the function, the driver monitoring system no longer has validity.”
This is a pretty bold statement — Tesla is often criticized for its lack of a driver monitoring system to bolster Autopilot, while Cadillac is praised for its system that tracks a driver’s eye movements — and speaks to Volvo’s confidence in Luminar’s LIDAR sensors. In addition to the Highway Pilot feature, Volvo said it is also considering using Luminar’s LIDAR to boost future versions of its ADAS, with the potential for equipping all future SPA2-based cars with a LIDAR sensor as standard.
At first, it will cost extra, though Volvo had no details to release on that front. LIDAR can be incredibly expensive — the rooftop versions sold by industry leader Velodyne can cost as much as $75,000 — but Luminar has said it is aiming to reduce the cost to as little as $500 a unit for ADAS applications and around $1,000 a unit for autonomous applications.
The Iris LIDAR weigh a little less than two pounds and have a range of 250 meters — and as much as 500 meters for larger objects. And while most self-driving cars include multiple spinning LIDAR sensors on the rooftop and around the body of the vehicle, Volvo’s lone LIDAR will be “seamlessly integrated” into the top of the windshield of its vehicles.
Austin Russell, CEO of Luminar, said Volvo is going against the grain with its approach to autonomous driving. “I think a lot of people didn’t really see consumer vehicles as a viable route for autonomous,” he told The Verge. “Everyone kind of piled into the robotaxi game, seeing that as the first realm of deployments.”
Those projects are exciting, but lack the scale of Volvo’s efforts, Russell said. “The way you get the unit economics to work, you have to have that scale,” he said. “The reality is it’s just not there in the robotaxi side or even the trucking side right now. That’s where the consumer vehicle side of this comes into play.”
Indeed, most major autonomous vehicle outfits, including Waymo, Cruise, Argo, Nuro, Zoox, and others, see ride-hailing and delivery as the tip of the spear for self-driving technology, and the best way to recoup expenses. Russell’s argument is that selling hundreds of thousands of vehicles with costly sensors and advanced technology to consumers is a much better way to achieve success.
Of course, LIDAR has its detractors, most noticeably Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who has called it a “crutch” and prefers advanced vision-based systems to power his company’s autonomous systems. Green, Volvo’s CTO, said camera-and-radar-based systems lack “the accuracy and distance” of LIDAR, and also the ability to see through different weather and light conditions.
“It builds and adds to the accuracy and to the reliability of a system,” Green said, “which in our judgment is necessary to be to be as good as a human driver and which it needs to be in order to be replacing a human driver.”