Mercedes-Benz will add lidar sensors to “a broad range” of its vehicles by the middle of the decade. The laser sensors will help power the German automaker’s next-generation driver-assist system; which allows for hands-free unsupervised driving on certain highways. The lidar will be supplied by Luminar, a Florida-based company in which Mercedes owns a small investment stake.
The German automaker has no plans to increase its stake in Luminar, though the lidar deal is said to be worth several billion dollars (Mercedes owns less than 1 percent of the company). Mercedes is the latest automaker to commit to selling vehicles to customers with rooftop lidar sensors. The laser sensor, a key component in the suites used by most autonomous vehicles, employs near-infrared light to detect the shapes and distances of objects.
Combined with camera images and other sensor data, lidar helps vehicles “see” other objects on the road, like cars, pedestrians, and cyclists, all without the help of GPS or a network connection.
The expanded deal will mean expanding Luminar’s manufacturing footprint to include a factory in Asia. The factory will “almost entirely be dedicated to supporting the Mercedes series production program,” Luminar’s spokesperson said.
Mercedes will use Luminar’s lidar to help power its Drive Pilot driver-assist system, a Level 3 driving feature in which the car does all the driving but the driver needs to stand by to take control at a moment’s notice. Unlike a Level 2 system, like GM’s Super Cruise or Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self-Driving, a Level 3 system purportedly does not need to be supervised by a driver under certain conditions, like on a divided highway.
Safety advocates, and even some automakers, have raised concerns about such a system being available on public roads without adequate safeguards or regulatory oversight.
Since its founding in 2012, Luminar has secured commitments from a number of companies to purchase its lidars; including Volvo, Audi, Toyota Research Institute, Intel’s Mobileye, Daimler trucks, Airbus, and two Chinese companies: automaker SAIC and AV operator Pony.ai. Luminar is rumored to even have a partnership with Tesla, despite Elon Musk’s vocal derision of lidar as a “crutch” and a “fool’s errand.”
Mercedes isn’t the only automaker pursuing the technology. In its announcement that it was pivoting away from fully autonomous driving, Ford said it would turn to “internally developed L2+/L3 technology.” Audi, BMW, and Volvo have all said they are working on their own Level 3 systems, with California seen as the next frontier for testing and deployment.