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Luminar

The first generation of truly autonomous cars — in which you can safely doze off through city and highway driving, and never have to touch the wheel — may cost $300,000 to $400,000, says the CEO of a Silicon Valley company that makes autonomous sensing systems.

  • In other words, you and I are highly unlikely to be able anytime soon to own a car that takes us anywhere we want to go while we read the newspaper, according to Austin Russell, CEO of Luminar, a Silicon Valley startup that's developing a Lidar visual system for self-driving.
  • The reason: The expense of Lidar and other sophisticated sensing devices required to make autonomous cars safe around unpredictable humans. Russell said such technology doesn't currently exist, but that when it does, it will at least initially be almost the exclusive preserve of ride-hailing fleet owners such as GM, Lyft and Uber.
  • "People think that they'll go and buy and autonomous cars. That's not going to reflect reality," Russell tells Axios.

We reported yesterday that, against announcements that full autonomy is coming in 2019, 2021 or 2022, depending who you talk to, truly self-driving cars able to work in any normal conditions probably won't be on the market until the 2030s. Until then, we will see only limited autonomy — the ability to drive handless on highways, or elsewhere along specific courses, in certain lanes. And for ordinary motorists, full autonomy is even further off, because costs must come down first.

What are analysts getting wrong? In the case of both timing and cost, it's how far developers are from a sensing system that can deal with almost anything humans might do, Russell says.

No one is anywhere close, he says: Current sensing technology typically has a "critical failure rate" — how often it fails to "see" an object, or to see it correctly — of 1 in 1,000 miles. To be acceptable for introduction onto public roads, that needs to drop significantly — to 1 in 5 million, Russell says.

Lidar, the leading sensing technology, "has had no performance advance in decades. We are seeing the same type of technology," he said.

There is too much focus on cost: Most of the attention is on bringing down the price of Lidar to $1,000, or even $100, so that self-driving can be embraced by the mass market. Current top-of-the-line Lidar — those boxes you see on top of test cars tooling around big cities — cost $75,000 to $85,000. When the technology is optimized, the price will initially be $300,000 to $400,000 — the price that fleet owners will be willing to pay because of how profitable ride-hailing will be as a business, Russell said.

Commercially speaking, that doesn't matter: "The biggest question is not cost, but who is going to get there first," Russell said.

Go deeper

Alabama trying to use COVID relief funds to expand prisons

Inside the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Ala., in 2018. Photo: Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images

Alabama state lawmakers are trying to funnel up to $400 million of the state's American Rescue Plan funds to pay for a $1.3 billion plan to build and renovate prisons across the state, the Associated Press reports.

Why it matters: Diverting dollars from the COVID-relief package, passed in March, is prompting criticism over misuse.

2 hours ago - World

Jake Sullivan discussed human rights and Yemen with Saudi crown prince

MBS in 2018. Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed efforts to end the war in Yemen, the de-escalation of regional tensions with Iran, and Saudi Arabia's human rights record in their meeting on Monday, a senior U.S. official told Axios.

Why it matters: This was Sullivan's first trip to the Middle East since taking up his post in January, and he was the most senior visitor to the kingdom so far from the Biden administration, which has kept the crown prince at arm's length over his roles in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Top Pentagon officials contradict Biden on Afghanistan advice

Photo: Carolone Brehman/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Top military leaders confirmed in a Senate hearing Tuesday they recommended earlier this year that the U.S. keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, and that they believed withdrawing those forces would lead to the collapse of the Afghan military.

Why it matters: Biden denied last month that his top military advisers wanted troops to remain in Afghanistan, telling ABC's George Stephanopoulos: "No one said that to me that I can recall."