Daimler invests in lidar company Luminar in push to bring autonomous trucks to highways

Kirsten Korosec
·3-min read

Daimler's trucks division has invested in lidar developer Luminar as part of a broader partnership to produce autonomous trucks capable of navigating highways without a human driver behind the wheel.

The deal, which comes just days after Daimler and Waymo announced plans to work together to build an autonomous version of the Freightliner Cascadia truck, is the latest action by the German manufacturer to move away from robotaxis and shared mobility and instead focus on how automated vehicle technology can be applied to freight.

The undisclosed investment by Daimler is in addition to the $170 million that Luminar raised as part of its merger with special purpose acquisition company Gores Metropoulos Inc. Luminar will become a publicly traded company through its merger with Gores, which is expected to close in late 2020.

Daimler is taking two tracks on its mission to commercialize autonomous trucks. The company has been working internally to develop a truck capable of Level 4 automation — an industry term that means the system can handle all aspects of driving without human intervention in certain conditions and environments such as highways. That work has accelerated since spring 2019 when Daimler took a majority stake in Torc Robotics, an autonomous trucking startup that had been working with Luminar the past two years. Lidar, the light detection and ranging radar that measures distance using laser light to generate a highly accurate 3D map of the world around the car, is considered a critical piece of hardware to deploy automated vehicle technology safely and at scale.

The plan is to integrate Torc's self-driving system, along with Luminar's sensors, into a Freightliner Cascadia truck as well as build out an operations and network center to run automated trucks. Daimler Trucks’ and Torc’s integrated self-driving product will be designed for on-highway hub-to-hub applications, especially for long-distance, monotonous transport between distribution centers, according to Daimler.

Meanwhile, Daimler Trucks is developing a customized Freightliner Cascadia truck chassis with redundant systems to allow Waymo to integrate its self-driving system. In this case, the software development stays in house at Waymo; Daimler is just concentrating on the chassis development.

This dual approach puts Daimler's ambitions at center stage, which is to have series-production L4 trucks on highways globally. The deal also provides a clearer view of Luminar's strategy of focusing on what its founder Austin Russell believes are the most likely and shortest paths to commercialized automated vehicles, and in turn, a profitable company.

"Our focus has really been always centered around highway autonomy use cases, which are specifically applicable to passenger vehicles as well as trucks," Russell said in a recent interview, adding that the aim is to have a product that you can put into series production in a cost-effective capacity.

Luminar has already publicly announced one deal with an automaker to pursue the passenger vehicle use case. Volvo said in May it will start producing vehicles in 2022 that are equipped with lidar and a perception stack developed by Luminar that the automaker will use to deploy an automated driving system for highways. This deal with Daimler locks in the second use case.

"I absolutely do believe that autonomous trucking is an incredibly valuable business model that's going to be larger than robotaxis and probably closer to being on par with consumer vehicles for the foreseeable future," Russell said.