Robotaxis is more than a decade away, says Luminar CEO

(To receive weekly emails with conversations with the world’s top CEOs and business decision makers, click here.)

Austin Russell became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire in 2020 at the age of 25. And he did it by betting against the hype.

The $2.8 billion company he founded, Luminar Technologies, makes light detection and ranging (LiDAR) systems for cars—basically high-tech laser arrays that help computers “see” the world around them in 3D, which many technologists believe that will be necessary to build cars that can drive themselves. The promise of driverless cars has generated huge hype over the past decade, with investors pouring billions of dollars into companies promising to make steering wheels a thing of the past. Russell, however, says he believed getting rid of drivers would be harder than people realized and focused his company, which he founded when he was just 17, on deals and technology focused on augmenting human drivers, rather than replacing them.

He might have been right. The autonomous vehicle industry has faced harsh headlines for its failure to deliver on its optimistic promises. Russell, meanwhile, says he’s sitting pretty, with deals to commercialize his LiDAR technology with partners like Volvo and Nissan. TIME sat down with Russell, who is a TIME 100 Next honoree, to talk about the state of the industry, driver safety and another notable opponent of driverless cars, Elon Musk.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

(For future of work coverage, visit TIME.com/charter and register for the free Charter newsletter.)

You’ve gotten a lot of attention at your age. What was it like running Luminar at such a young age? Have you learned something by doing what you think an older person might not?

Well, sometimes what you don’t know or don’t care about is just as important as what you do know. However, Luminar wasn’t always a big enough company. It obviously started very small when we first established it. But at the same time, there’s no question that building a technology that can be fundamentally differentiated and a 10- or 100-fold improvement on what’s there is very, very challenging. But honestly, perhaps even more challenging is being able to build a great business. It takes a lot more than great technology to build a great business at the end of the day. The kind of business skill set you need to have is not one that can be taught in any traditional curriculum or really by anyone or anything. It is tested by fire. It’s either sink or swim. Unfortunately, the vast majority of new companies end up going under. It is the few who end up swimming. And you have to keep doing it over and over and over as you scale it up.

You’ve said you’re a self-driving vehicle skeptic. What is the state of the industry from your perspective?

It might sound ironic because I’m in the industry, but I’ve described myself as the main skeptic of the autonomous vehicle. I’ll try not to credit things that are mostly luck, but I don’t think this is it. The huge contrarian bet I made early on was this [autonomous driving] it was not going to materialize in any reasonable time frame through what many had assumed would be urban autonomous robotaxi-style vehicles without any drivers. This problem was just too complicated, and I saw that people just dramatically underestimated the importance of this challenge by at least an order of magnitude – realistically, multiple orders of magnitude. Even today, it is still not at hand. There is no commercially viable business that focuses on all of these. Not that there can’t be—it can and eventually will—but there was this assumption that everything would be resolved in a few years. Everyone had said that by 2021, we’d be welcoming robots over our heads, driving us everywhere, and car ownership would be a thing of the past. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

This was also the reason why, in the beginning, we focused on the existing trillion [dollar] a year of consumer vehicle industry. The goal is not just to replace the driver. This is about improving the driver. It’s about making the vehicle safer and saving the driver time. This is what can make the difference. From a market perspective, we made the right bet and that’s how we ended up where we are today. We have substantially more major commercial wins than any other LiDAR company and probably any other company in the autonomous vehicle industry. We won most of the game.

Read more: Meet the 2022 TIME100 Next

Elon Musk is another notable contrarian. He was quite skeptical about the need for LiDAR. What is your counter argument to this? And do you think Tesla is on the road to full self-driving?

There is nothing wrong with the basics of what they are trying to do. The only discrepancy is advertising what it really is, and some of the manipulation [of] consumers, which is quite questionable. To call it “self-driving” at all, much less “fully self-driving” is a fundamentally inaccurate statement. They have a great driver assistance system. There is much more room for improvement in terms of assisted driving. From an autonomous standpoint, if you want to be able to get to a point where you’re truly autonomous, that’s where LiDAR comes into play.

The reality is that cars, including even the most advanced Teslas, most of the time will not safely stop for an unknown object or person or anything else in front of you if you are traveling at a reasonable Speed. Sometimes it can reduce the severity of the collision, but preventing it completely is another story. That’s essentially what we do because we have a basic understanding of the truth of what’s going on. The whole idea of ​​how you can use this technology is essentially moving towards the ‘crashproof car’. This is something that no one is immune to, whether it’s Tesla or Toyota or Volvo or whoever

So the reality is that the crash-free car is the first benchmark to get to, and after that comes self-driving?

Exactly. And the reality is that people have been thinking the other way around and trying to skip steps when it’s just not possible. It has not decreased by 20%. It has decreased by 10,000. The tricky part is that autonomous systems must be inherently perfect. When you drive a human, you only need to take over the system when the human makes a mistake, but it’s not that often. Autonomous systems make stupid mistakes all the time. Our LiDAR makes it a hundred to a thousand times easier, and it’s still hard, even with that. That’s why trying to do without it is ridiculous.

So if you had to put a time on it, what’s your best guess as to when people will get into self-driving robotaxis?

When it comes to [having] Our technology in consumer vehicles is literally just around the corner. We’re talking about months. This will dramatically improve safety and enable some autonomous capabilities that start on highways and extend out there. When it comes to robotics and truly full self-driving systems on any appreciable scale: well into the 2030s. If I had to pick a number I’d call it 2035. That would be too much for how it’s going to be implemented in the first place. I think by 2050 we would see it more widespread. Super promising, will be a huge value. But the question is, what is the right path to be able to get there and be able to see the technology?

You’ve talked about this “100, 100, 100” vision. Can you tell me about it?

The holistic goal behind everything we do at Luminar is our 100-year vision, which is to save up to 100 million lives and 100 trillion hours on the road over the next 100 years. I think that would be one of the most important things we could do from a social point of view. For people between 1 and 44, by some measures, it’s the leading cause of death—car accidents. [That’s a] Totally solvable problem, we just need the technology to deal with it. Everything we do is ultimately all connected to this big picture around saving lives and saving people time. And it also ties into the general idea that you don’t need to replace the driver from day one to be able to start making a huge impact in life already. This is the north star around which we center.

More must-read stories from TIME


Write to Alejandro de la Garza at alejandro.delagarza@time.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *