Auto Tech

A light investment: Volvo takes stake in Luminar for self-driving cars

Investing in lidar is so hot right now.

Volvo

Earlier this year, Volvo announced a new tech fund to invest in startups, and now we're seeing where some of that money is going.

The Volvo Cars Tech Fund has completed its first investment, choosing to plunk down cash in Luminar, a company that specializes in developing lidar for autonomous vehicles. It was already collaborating with the company, which will see its products used in future Volvo vehicles, and this investment deepens the relationship.

Strangely enough, this is also what your car sees when it comes in contact with that mysterious sheet of blotter paper you keep in your desk.

Luminar

"Lidar is a key technology for enabling autonomous cars to navigate safely in complex traffic environments and at higher speeds," said Henrik Green, Volvo Cars' senior vice president for R&D, in a statement. "Our collaboration with Luminar allows us to learn more about its promising technologies and takes Volvo Cars one step further to the highly autonomous cars of the future."

Whereas radar uses radio waves to determine the position of objects, lidar uses quick pulses of light. It's able to create point maps that, in conjunction with other sensors and cameras, can give a self-driving car a clear picture of what's going on around it. Many automakers, in addition to developers like Waymo, have seen fit to add lidar to their arsenal, with the notable exception of Tesla, which believes it's not necessary.

Volvo is far from the only automaker investing in lidar companies themselves. Ford and Baidu teamed up in 2016 to invest in Velodyne, one of the leading lidar developers at the moment. In 2017, GM bought Strobe, another lidar developer. BMW hopes that Magna and Innoviz will provide a solid-state lidar solution that cuts down on both cost and complexity.

But lidar isn't just future tech. It's already here -- sort of. The 2019 Audi A8 is the first production vehicle to carry lidar, which it uses as part of its SAE Level 3 Traffic Jam Pilot semi-autonomous driver aid.