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10 Minute Text


Luminar’s Austin Russell on autonomous driving technology, his partnership with Mercedes, and whether we’ll be able to afford his inventions

Mar 14, 2023, 8:32pm EDT

Austin Russell, founder and CEO of Luminar Technologies, is the rare Silicon Valley autonomous driving egghead who believes human drivers actually have a future. His vision: You still need to drive your car, but it becomes increasingly impossible for you to mess up, as a suite of sensors and software prevent you from colliding with other objects.

We talked about his vision, and other stuff like Luminar’s recent partnership Mercedes, over text message.


Reed Albergotti said:

Hey Austin, thanks for doing this. How are you and where are you? Can you send me a selfie?

Austin Russell said:

For sure. In the office of course! @ our HQ in Orlando

Reed Albergotti said:

Nice office and cool jacket. Are you an F1 fan?

Austin Russell said:

Certainly a fan of Mercedes given our recent news together! 🙂 How about you?

Reed Albergotti said:

Me? I love all forms of car racing.

Reed Albergotti said:

Would it be cheating to use Luminar technology in an F1 car?

Austin Russell said:

Hah, we’re all about giving automakers that unfair advantage 😛 One way to look at it is we help enable F1-level driving for everyone, but defensive as opposed to offensive.

Reed Albergotti said:

When a lot of people think of lidar, they think silly-looking cars with spinning gizmos everywhere and possibly no driver. What’s the luminar lidar on Mercedes going to look like?

Austin Russell said:

We’ve effectively transformed what autonomous cars/next gen safety looks like - seamlessly integrated into the top roofline of the vast majority of production cars we’re being integrated into.

Reed Albergotti said:

Got it, so my new Mercedes won’t come with spinny things?

Austin Russell said:

Definitely not, no $100k roof rack of spinning sensors and a supercomputer in the trunk!

Reed Albergotti said:

But these won’t be robotaxis right? What will my next be able to do?

Austin Russell said:

They are not robo-taxis or driver-less vehicles. The big bet I made early on was to focus on enhancing the driver, not replacing the driver. And working with automakers on production consumer vehicles to enable dramatically improved safety features, as well as more constrained autonomous capabilities on highways.

Reed Albergotti said:

Since you started, AI has made some big advances. Has that caused you to rethink what’s possible? I’m thinking about the “transformer’ models that are behind ChatGPT and Dall-E.

Austin Russell said:

Definitely! Actually been investing in AI for luminar for the past 5 yrs and just launched our AI engine last week. Goal is to enable cars to have their own ‘ChatGPT’ moment when you have the accuracy and precision of our lidar at scale.

Reed Albergotti said:

Does that mean you’re going to be asking your car to write you a limerick or does ChatGPT for a car mean it can do more of the driving?

Austin Russell said:

Haha, in this case it’s leveraging lidar+AI to enable super-human driving capabilities.

Reed Albergotti said:

But with a human still behind the wheel?

Austin Russell said:

Yes! Eg. if it senses you are likely to be in an imminent collision with a pedestrian, bike or car, it can take over the braking system and steering to avoid.

Reed Albergotti said:

That sounds great, especially if you’re the pedestrian. How do we get this tech into the hands of all drivers? I have heard Mercedes are expensive .. for some people. Asking for a friend.

Austin Russell said:

Yes of course, your vintage Mercedes collection is quite exquisite … :)

Austin Russell said:

But for your friend, they actually have some mainstream models too.

Generally Luminar will be initially introduced on premium vehicles, but that’s where co’s like Volvo and Nissan come into play to make this next gen safety available to everyone.

Reed Albergotti said:

That’s great .. for my friend and pedestrians. I think that’s ten minutes. I really appreciate you doing this!

Austin Russell said:

Cheers! Now back into the grind –

Reed Albergotti said:

Have a good night

Austin Russell said:

You too