Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Volvo Cars is preparing to launch its first fully self-driving technology for highways using lidar and perception technology provided by Luminar, an ambitious tech startup.

Why it matters: The partnership is a major milestone for both companies.

  • Unlike other hands-off highway driving systems, Volvo's technology would allow drivers to truly relax — taking their eyes off the road — while the car assumes full responsibility for driving.
  • The deal is Luminar's first production contract and a huge vote of confidence in its lidar system, which works with radar and camera sensors to help self-driving cars understand their environment.

Details: The system will debut as an option on Volvo's next-generation vehicles, starting in 2022, likely with the XC90 crossover.

  • The cars will be "hardware-ready" for autonomous drive, with the Luminar lidar seamlessly integrated into the roof — a huge design leap over the spinning contraptions mounted on today's self-driving test vehicles.
  • Using over-the-air software updates, the optional Highway Pilot feature will be activated once it is verified to be safe for specific locations and road conditions.
  • The companies are also exploring the use of lidar to improve future advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS).

How it works: There will be no ambiguity about when the driver needs to pay attention, says Patrik Björler, director of autonomous drive and mobility strategy at Volvo Cars.

  • "Either you are responsible for driving the car, or we are in autonomous mode," he tells Axios.
  • When the autonomous mode is activated, Volvo is fully liable for driving and the human driver can take their eyes off the road.

What's next: The companies said they'll deepen their collaboration to jointly ensure Luminar can manufacture and validate its lidar system for series production.

  • Volvo Cars also has an option to increase its minority stake in Luminar, which has raised $250 million to date.

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