Jun 15, 2021 - Technology

Self-driving car design: Less Frankenstein, more iPhone

Photo collage showing images of how the design of sensor tech has evolved in self-driving cars.
Luminar imagines Blade, a "golden halo" of sensors, will replace ungainly tech currently on AV test vehicles. Photo: Cruise, Luminar.

It's easy to spot an autonomous test vehicle in your neighborhood: it looks a bit like Frankenstein, with sensors bolted to the sides and roof. But as self-driving technology matures, sensor design is streamlining, too, bringing AVs closer to market acceptance.

Why it matters: The AV industry is waiting for "its iPhone moment — where everything comes together, and it’s clear, and nobody goes back again," says technology designer Gadi Amit.

AV tech is becoming less conspicuous, though. Luminar, a leading provider, is this week showcasing its new Iris lidar system, which is so small it can be fully integrated into the car's roofline, just above the windshield.

  • It'll appear in late 2022 on new Volvo Cars' models with hands-free highway driving, followed by SAIC, Daimler Trucks North America and Pony.ai.
  • The sleek design is a long way from what AV pioneer Chris Urmson, now CEO of Aurora, once described as the "spinning Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket" on the roof of early AVs.

What's next: Luminar collaborated with Amit to take the integration a step further with Blade, which it described as "a blueprint" for the design of future robotaxis and autonomous trucks.

  • It would incorporate cameras, lidar and radar into a "golden halo" around the top of the vehicle.
  • "It's no longer a sensor, but it becomes the thinking head of the car," Amit said.
  • Luminar CEO Austin Russell says the company is working with auto industry partners to incorporate its technology into their future vehicles.
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