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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.

Protocol | Fintech

Amazon wants a crypto play. Its history in payments is not encouraging.

It missed chances to be PayPal, Square and Stripe — so is this its chance to miss being Coinbase, too?

Amazon wants to be a crypto player.

Image: NurPhoto/Getty Images

The news that Amazon was hiring a lead for a new digital currency and blockchain initiative sent the price of bitcoin soaring. But there's another way to look at the news that's less bullish on bitcoin and bearish on Amazon: 13 years after Satoshi Nakamoto's whitepaper appeared on the internet, Amazon is just discovering cryptocurrency?

That may be a bit unkind, but the truth is sometimes unkind. And the reality is that Amazon has a long history of stumbles and missed opportunities in payments, which goes back more than two decades to the company's purchase of internet payments startup Accept.com.

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Owen Thomas

Owen Thomas is a senior editor at Protocol overseeing venture capital and financial technology coverage. He was previously business editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and before that editor-in-chief at ReadWrite, a technology news site. You're probably going to remind him that he was managing editor at Valleywag, Gawker Media's Silicon Valley gossip rag. He lives in San Francisco with his husband and Ramona the Love Terrier, whom you should follow on Instagram.

Over the last year, financial institutions have experienced unprecedented demand from their customers for exposure to cryptocurrency, and we've seen an inflow of institutional dollars driving bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to record prices. Some banks have already launched cryptocurrency programs, but many more are evaluating the market.

That's why we've created the Crypto Maturity Model: an iterative roadmap for cryptocurrency product rollout, enabling financial institutions to evaluate market opportunities while addressing compliance requirements.

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Caitlin Barnett, Chainanalysis
Caitlin’s legal and compliance experience encompasses both cryptocurrency and traditional finance. As Director of Regulation and Compliance at Chainalysis, she helps leading financial institutions strategize and build compliance programs in order to adopt cryptocurrencies and offer new products to their customers. In addition, Caitlin helps facilitate dialogue with regulators and the industry on key policy issues within the cryptocurrency industry.
Protocol | Enterprise

How Google Cloud plans to kill its ‘Killed By Google’ reputation

Under the new Google Enterprise APIs policy, the company is making a promise that its services will remain available and stable far into the future.

Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian has promised to make the company more customer-friendly.

Photo: Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images 2019

Google Cloud issued a promise Monday to current and potential customers that it's safe to build a business around its core technologies, another step in its transformation from an engineering playground to a true enterprise tech vendor.

Starting Monday, Google will designate a subset of APIs across the company as Google Enterprise APIs, including APIs from Google Cloud, Google Workspace and Google Maps. APIs selected for this category — which will include "a majority" of Google Cloud APIs according to Kripa Krishnan, vice president at Google Cloud — will be subject to strict guidelines regarding any changes that could affect customer software built around those APIs.

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Tom Krazit

Tom Krazit ( @tomkrazit) is Protocol's enterprise editor, covering cloud computing and enterprise technology out of the Pacific Northwest. He has written and edited stories about the technology industry for almost two decades for publications such as IDG, CNET, paidContent, and GeekWire, and served as executive editor of Gigaom and Structure.

Amazon job opening points to plan to accept crypto payments

The news sparked a rally in the values of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Amazon may be planning to let customers pay for orders with cryptocurrencies.

Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images

Amazon is looking to hire a digital currency and blockchain expert suggesting a plan to let customers accept cryptocurrencies as payments.

The tech giant's job opening says Amazon is looking for "an experienced product leader" to help develop the company's "digital currency and blockchain strategy and roadmap" Amazon is looking for product leader with expertise in blockchain, distributed ledger, central bank digital currencies and cryptocurrency.

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Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Protocol | Policy

Big Tech tried to redefine terrorism online. It got messy fast.

The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism announced a series of narrow steps it's taking that underscore just how fraught the job of classifying terror online really is.

Erin Saltman is GIFCT's director of programming.

Photo: Paul Morigi/Flickr

A little over a month after the Jan. 6 riot, the tech industry's leading anti-terrorism alliance — a group founded by Facebook, YouTube, Microsoft and Twitter — announced it was seeking ideas for how it could expand its definition of terrorism, which had for years been more or less synonymous with Islamic terrorism. The group, called the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism or GIFCT, had been considering such a shift for at least a year, but the rising threat of domestic extremism, punctuated by the Capitol uprising, made it all the more clear something needed to change.

But after months of interviewing member companies, months of considering academic proposals and months spent mulling the impact of tech platforms on this and other violent events around the world, the group's policies have barely budged. On Monday, in a 177-page report, GIFCT released the first details of its plan, and, well, a radical rethinking of online extremism it is not. Instead, the report lays out a series of narrow steps that underscore just how fraught the job of classifying terror online really is.

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Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

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