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Luminar has a plan to make self-driving cars look much cooler

Its new Blade design system ditches the spinning roof racks for something much cooler.

Luminar has a plan to make self-driving cars look much cooler

Luminar's Blade design system packs all its lidar tech into a single panel above the windshield.

Photo: Luminar

Luminar CEO Austin Russell isn't trying to make self-driving cars look like every other car. He'd definitely like to do better than the giant spinning racks currently on the road in most autonomous vehicles, but the goal is not to hide the tech entirely.

To explain, Russell picked me up on the streets of Washington, D.C., in a modified black Toyota RAV4, with Luminar logos all over but a noticeable lack of giant spinning things on the roof. Instead, all the tech was built into a single strip sticking out like a Cyclops visor a few inches above the windshield. Russell and a few of his colleagues were in town showing off the new vehicle to partners, regulators and investors as part of a worldwide roadshow for its tech. Someday soon, if Russell gets his way and Luminar takes over the world, this visor will become as commonplace a car feature as a radio antenna.

It's no spinning rack, but it's not meant to be invisible, either. Having a subtle way to communicate "this is a car with self-driving technology inside" is a useful thing on the road, but also a distinct status symbol that Luminar thinks might help convince people to buy autonomous vehicles in the first place. In that sense, the visor serves the same purpose as a racing stripe or a hood ornament: It sends a signal to everyone else on the road about exactly how cool your ride is.

Once we settled into the backseat with a keyboard on his lap, Russell began manipulating the images on two large screens, showing a real-time feed of Luminar's Iris system on top of our RAV4. Iris, of course, is Luminar's real product: a cheap, small lidar rig that can now use a single high-powered laser to collect a real-time, three-dimensional view of the car's perspective, with about a 120-degree field of view and 250 meters of range. Russell pointed to a fast-moving blur of green, which was a scooter rider whipping the wrong way down a one-way street. Three walkers side by side looked like, well, three walkers side by side.

Russell is excited about the whole system, of course, which he and the Luminar team have been working on for almost a decade. "We spent the first two years just making sure we were right," he said, "and then had to go build every part of it for ourselves."

Luminar Blade on a truck The Blade system also includes a system for trucks that is almost — but intentionally not quite – invisible.Photo: Luminar

But Russell doesn't just want to make technology for its own sake, or that only works in a giant, spinning roof rack. (Luminar's roadshow also includes a car with one of those racks, both for a tech comparison and seemingly as something of a reminder of what failure might look like.) He wants to put this tech into cars that people buy and drive, to make autonomy a feature for everyone. Luminar never really considered making cars, he said — "Maybe for, like, a minute, but that's it" — and has long since decided to try to change the industry from inside.

On Tuesday, Luminar publicly shared its design vision, the one that led to the RAV4's visor. It's called Blade, and Russell said he hopes it can help define the future of autonomous cars, robotaxis and more. Luminar is working with Volvo, Daimler Trucks and Pony.ai to build Iris into their vehicles, and has plans to do the same with many others. (Hence the roadshow.)

The Blade system includes whole-hog redesigns for taxis and trucks, integrating the Iris system into the roof in different ways for each vehicle. Flexibility is key here, Russell said. Because autonomous vehicles will have so many use cases and specific needs, and because the shift to electric is causing an industrywide shift in car design in general, Iris needs to work on vehicles of all sizes and shapes.

Luminar's robotaxi is wilder than its other designs, but still not quite science-fiction stuff.Image: Luminar

Russell also argued that the Iris system can be useful for more than just autonomy. "Just think about the standard crash-avoidance systems," he said, like the ones that beep when drivers get too close to another car, or that try to course-correct when drivers start to drift out of their lane. A good lidar system could make those systems much better — and become a selling point for auto manufacturers — long before the whole full-self-driving future becomes reality. (Which Russell always says is going to take longer than most people think.) Plus, transportation is more than just cars: Luminar is working with Airbus to figure out how Iris might work for flying cars and taxis as well.

The underlying tech isn't done, of course, but after so many years of developing and manufacturing the basic Iris tech, it's time to figure out how it might actually look and work in the world. Russell and Luminar are certain that design matters just as much as technology in the race to self-driving: that people won't buy the cars of the future if they don't look at least as cool as the cars of the past. And nobody's spending an extra $50,000 just for better crash avoidance. So this is the next phase, for Luminar and the industry: to turn those gee-whiz whirligigs of technology on the roof into something you just barely notice but constantly benefit from. Lidar is hard, but that might be even harder.

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