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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

Congress plots COVID pandemic-era office upgrades

oving crates outside Rep. Elise Stefanik's old office Tuesday. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The House plans to renovate members' suites even though staff are worried about an influx of contractors and D.C. is tightening restrictions on large gatherings, some staffers told Axios.

Why it matters: The Capitol has been closed to public tours since March. Work over the holiday season comes as U.S. coronavirus cases spike, Americans beg for more pandemic assistance and food lines grow.

Trump pressures Barr to release so-called Durham report

Bill Barr. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

President Trump and his allies are piling extreme pressure on Attorney General Bill Barr to release a report that Trump believes could hurt perceived Obama-era enemies — and view Barr's designation of John Durham as special counsel as a stall tactic, sources familiar with the conversations tell Axios.

Why it matters: Speculation over Barr's fate grew on Tuesday, with just 49 days remaining in Trump's presidency, after Barr gave an interview to the Associated Press in which he said the Justice Department has not uncovered evidence of widespread fraud that could change the election's outcome.

CDC to cut guidance on quarantine period for coronavirus exposure

A health care worker oversees cars as people arrive to get tested for coronavirus at a testing site in Arlington, Virginia, on Tuesday. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

The CDC will soon shorten its guidance for quarantine periods following exposure to COVID-19, AP reported Tuesday and Axios can confirm.

Why it matters: Quarantine helps prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which can occur before a person knows they're sick or if they're infected without feeling any symptoms. The current recommended period to stay home if exposed to the virus is 14 days. The CDC plans to amend this to 10 days or seven with a negative test, an official told Axios.

  • The CDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.