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Luminar

Here's how Volvo's autonomous 360c concept might see the world

This sultry vision for a luxurious future is fully driverless, yet it lacks the aerials and appendages found on today's autonomous machines. Here's how it might be able to see.

The Volvo 360c concept is that company's attempt at creating a better way to get from A to B in the future than driving yourself, taking a train or, heaven forbid, going to the airport. Short-haul flights are particularly inefficient, both in terms of pollution and time, making this safe, autonomous cocoon look appealing on multiple levels.

However, if you've seen any driverless cars of today you know that they don't look anywhere near as clean as Volvo's vision does. Waymo's Jaguar I-Pace is probably the best-looking of the bunch, yet even it looks like it got knocked on the head after swallowing a bee. Sultry it ain't.

That's because self-driving cars need a lot of sensors, and those sensors take up a lot of space. Particularly problematic are the lidar scanners, which traditionally spin 360-degrees to scan the entire environment with a laser. The best place to mount them? Up high on the roof.

"The whole industry has this problem," Maximilian Missoni, Volvo's VP of exterior design, told me at the 360c launch event in Sweden. "You see these early prototypes with all these things sticking out. That's one of our big challenges in exterior design, to try to keep the purity of the object still intact and still embed all this stuff."

Volvo 360c

The "cluster" of sensors on the nose of the 360c.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

Purity is something the 360c appears to have in spades. What it seems to lack, at least at first blush, is any sensors at all. Look closely, though, and you'll find them in the nose and tail. Lidar, radar and cameras are all integrated into what Missoni calls a "cluster." It's far cleaner than any other driverless car I've ever seen -- with the rather large caveat that this is a completely nonfunctional prototype.

But how could this car use a lidar scanner mounted so low? By having multiple. The 360c concept has a flat-plane lidar scanner, which doesn't provide full 360-degree coverage. However, with multiple sensors like this, a car can get the full view around that's needed.

Luminar Scanner OGI

Luminar's prototype, flat-plane lidar scanner. 

Luminar

I recently got a demonstration of a prototype sensor like this from a Florida-based company called Luminar, a supplier to Volvo. The company's laser scans back and forth dozens of times per second and can see 250 meters down the road. Driving in the busy streets of New York, the scanner was easily able to spot cars multiple blocks away while still providing a high-resolution render of nearby pedestrians. With a 120-degree field of view, four sensors would deliver full coverage with plenty of overlap.

The catch is that Luminar's current scanner is far bigger than those seen on the Volvo concept, but of course that's a car of the future. "They are quite minimized," Volvo's Missoni said, "because we assume that those lidars and those sensors will shrink."

Luminar CEO Austin Russell told me his company is actively working on that. "We continue to reduce size, weight, power... Manufacturers generally don't want something spinning on a mast on a roof, you know? We have a form factor you can integrate."

Whether those sensors will ever get integrated into something as radical as the 360c remains to be seen. Volvo representatives stopped well short of saying this car might ever go into production, instead referring to it as more of a conversation starter, kicking off new industry trends and perhaps opening the door to a new business model for Volvo. What tomorrow holds remains to be seen, but as I write this article from 36,000 feet, I surely hope there's a functional 360c in my future.

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