Mercedes-Benz announced it will integrate Luminar’s lidar sensors into future production vehicles to enable autonomous driving capabilities.
The German automaker is also taking an equity stake in the Orlando, Florida-based company, acquiring a total of 1.5 million shares. Based on Luminar’s share price of $13.45 at market close January 19th, Mercedes-Benz is purchasing approximately $20.2 million worth of shares, or less than 1 percent of the company.
Lidar, a key ingredient in autonomous driving, is a laser sensor that uses near-infrared light to detect the shapes of objects. This helps autonomous vehicles “see” other objects on the road, like cars, pedestrians, and cyclists, all without the help of GPS or a network connection.
Mercedes-Benz says it plans to integrate Luminar’s lidar sensors into its production vehicles, but there’s a lot that we still don’t know. The automaker declined to share a timeline for integrating Luminar’s lidar into its vehicles, which models would be getting the laser sensor, or what kind of autonomous capabilities it would enable.
Mercedes-Benz has said that its model year 2023 S-Class and EQS sedans will come with the automaker’s Drive Pilot advanced driver assistance system, which it describes as capable of Level 3 automation. Mercedes claims to be the first to “secure internationally valid system approval for conditionally automated driving (SAE Level 3) – marking a milestone in automotive development.” The feature will only be available in Germany, though, and not the US.
Level 3, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers, means the driver’s supervision is not required in a highly controlled setting, like on certain mapped highways. The driver still needs to be ready to take control at a moment’s notice, leaving it somewhere in a nebulous zone between Level 2 advanced driver assist systems, like Tesla’s Autopilot, and Level 4 fully driverless vehicles, like Waymo’s autonomous taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona.
A lot of companies are claiming to release Level 3 capable vehicles in the coming years. Volvo, which is also using Luminar’s lidar in its upcoming electric vehicles, said its Ride Pilot will enable its vehicles to drive themselves on certain highways without any human supervision — though the company is only planning on enabling the feature in California once it receives authorization from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.
Most AV companies, including Waymo, Argo, and Cruise, have said they are skipping Level 3 and working exclusively on Level 4 technology. The reason is that Level 3 is seen as being potentially dangerous, given the likelihood that drivers will be confused about when they need to takeover control of the vehicle.
There is also a data sharing angle to Mercedes’ new partnership with Luminar. The company’s CEO, Austin Russell, said the ability to collect data from Mercedes’ vehicles will ultimately help improve his company’s autonomous vehicle software.
Russell noted that Waymo, the AV company under Alphabet, has one of the the largest AV fleet in the world, with hundreds of vehicles operating in suburban Phoenix, Arizona. He said the ultimate goal was to have “hundreds of thousands of vehicles” on the road around the world gathering data on road conditions and traffic, enabling companies like Luminar to launch autonomous vehicle features in a broader range of markets.
“It takes not just hundreds, but hundreds of thousands of vehicles to actually be able to get to the global level of data that’s needed, and not just in one specific suburban area,” he said. “Also you don’t have to pay drivers. It’s people that are driving the cars already that allow it to continue to improve and get better and better and better.”
This isn’t the first time that a Daimler-owned company has bought shares in Luminar. Daimler Trucks, a division of Mercedes-Benz’s parent company, also bought a minority stake in the company in 2020.
Luminar has secured commitments from a number of companies to purchase its lidars. In addition to Mercedes-Benz, the company has deals with Volvo, Audi, Toyota Research Institute, Intel’s Mobileye, Airbus, and two Chinese companies: automaker SAIC and AV operator Pony.ai. Luminar may even have a partnership with Tesla, despite Elon Musk’s vocal derision of lidar as a “crutch” and a “fool’s errand.”