Austin Russell, now 22, was barely old enough to drive when he set out to create a safer navigation system for robot-controlled cars.
His ambitions are about to be tested.
Five years ago, Russell co-founded Luminar Technologies, a Silicon Valley startup trying to steer the rapidly expanding self-driving car industry in a new direction.
Luminar kept its work closely guarded until Thursday, when the startup revealed the first details about a product Russell is touting as a far more powerful form of “lidar,” a key sensing technology used in autonomous vehicles designed by Google, Uber and major automakers.
Lidar systems work by bouncing lasers off nearby objects and measuring the reflections to build up a detailed 3-D picture of the surrounding environment. The technology is similar to radar, which uses radio waves instead of lasers.
Russell says Luminar’s version, consisting of its own patented hardware and software, will provide 50 times more resolution and 10 times the range of current lidar systems. Those improvements, he said, will enable self-driving cars to be sold on the mass market more quickly.
During an interview in an empty warehouse on a San Francisco pier where Luminar has been testing its lidar, Russell wasn’t shy about making big claims for its technology. “When you see your vehicle is powered by Luminar, you will know you will be safer,” he said. “We need to get to the point where humans don’t have to constantly baby-sit and take control” of autonomous cars.
If Luminar’s lidar lives up to its promise, some of the world’s biggest technology and auto companies may have been upstaged by a precocious entrepreneur who says he memorized all the periodic table of the elements when he was 2 years old. By the time he turned 11, Russell says he was tinkering with supercomputers.
Like another technology prodigy — Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg — Russell won the early support of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who became a billionaire after investing $500,000 in Facebook during the company’s infancy.
One of Luminar’s early investors is a venture capital firm backed by Thiel and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Russell also dropped out of Stanford University after just three months when he won a Thiel fellowship, which pays students $100,000 to work on promising ideas instead of pursuing a degree.
Also like Zuckerberg, Russell is CEO of his company. Most of Luminar’s roughly 150 employees are older than him, including his former mentor in photonics, 45-year-old Jason Eichenholz, now the company’s chief technology officer. Russell’s father, a former commercial real estate specialist, is the company’s chief financial officer.
Now Russell will have to prove he has indeed invented something revolutionary.
Read more of the original article at Top Tech News.