Tim Bradshaw & Leslie Hook:

A 22-year-old Silicon Valley engineer, who was paid by a venture capitalist to skip college, has launched a start-up which aims to solve one of the toughest technical challenges in autonomous driving. 

Austin Russell founded Luminar Technologies in 2012, when he was just 17, to create a new version of the laser-based imaging sensor that is known in the automotive industry as Lidar. Backed by investors including the well-known venture capitalist Peter Thiel, Mr Russell unveiled Luminar on Thursday after five years of secretive development, claiming a 50-fold improvement in resolution compared with existing Lidar products. 

Lidar sensors have become a key enabler of self-driving cars because they allow vehicles to “see” the world around them, allowing vehicles to navigate and avoid obstacles. Uber and Alphabet’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, are locked in a bitter legal battle over allegations of stolen Lidar designs. 

As start-ups, automotive manufacturers and tech companies rush into autonomous driving, supplies of existing Lidar systems from manufacturers such as Velodyne have become so scarce that the devices have a waiting list several months long. 

At the same time, limitations in existing Lidar systems such as struggling to see through rain or snow have been seen as a barrier to widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles outside sunny areas such as California. 

Mr Russell says that he can solve these supply and quality problems and in doing so, “make autonomous vehicles both safe and ubiquitous” — although crucially he has not disclosed the price he will charge for his Lidar systems. 

After tinkering with photonics projects that included laser-powered drones and augmented-reality glasses in his teens, Mr Russell settled on creating high-resolution, long-range Lidar sensors as a way into the nascent autonomous vehicle market, which even then he believed “would eventually become vital to transportation”.