Volvo Bets on Luminar in Flagship SUV to Enable Self-Driving

Volvo Car AB is inching closer to truly autonomous driving by making laser sensors standard on its flagship SUV next year, a prelude to letting motorists tune out while cruising on the highway.

The Swedish carmaker, owned by China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., will debut the electric XC90 SUV in 2022 with a lidar-based safety system from Luminar Technologies Inc., making it the first passenger vehicle to run with the laser-eye system.

The SUV’s standard hardware will gather data that could eventually enable its Highway Pilot feature, which is designed to let drivers take their eyes and minds off the road on select freeways. If Volvo can pull that off, it would be a big step for computer-controlled driving.

“We will start by providing more high-performing safety features, and those features we can improve and grow in capability over time as we continue to harvest more and more data,” said Henrik Green, Volvo’s chief technology officer.

Volvo owners would eventually be able to subscribe to the Highway Pilot feature and have it installed in vehicles via a software update, similar to how Tesla Inc. markets its Autopilot feature.

“It will be a geographic rollout that we can verify and validate each and every single stretch of highway,” Green said.

Systems like the General Motors Co. Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot require driver interaction, even on the highway. The Volvo system developed with Luminar would not.

Adding laser sensors, which can see better than cameras in bad weather, will also improve the performance of Volvo’s existing safety features, like automatic emergency braking and lane-keep assistance, said Austin Russell, Luminar’s chief executive officer.

“Right now camera and radar systems don’t have anywhere close to the level of confidence to be able to actually take control over the braking system,” Russell said. “With lidar, we know exactly where everything is, down to centimeter-level precision.”

Many automakers have eschewed putting lidar in mass-produced vehicles because of the high cost relative to other sensors. Global supplier Aptiv Plc, for example, is developing more advanced radar sensors for automated driving to avoid the pricey hardware.

Lidar’s Iris

Russell said the system will use Luminar’s Iris laser sensor and software developed by Volvo. The carmaker will make it available under license to competitors.

Iris has its lidar integrated into the roof of a vehicle, giving the self-drive system’s computer brain the laser-generated images it needs to operate on the highway.

The system has a better view than the camera-based technology in other vehicles sold today, Russell said, and is designed to help avoid accidents even in city and suburban settings where the driver must be engaged.

The deal with Volvo will help Luminar build scale as the company gets its system in more vehicles. That will reduce costs and give the company more data to improve its product’s ability to avoid people and other vehicles on the road.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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