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Why Luminar CEO is skeptical of the autonomous vehicle industry

Yahoo Finance’s Myles Udland, Julie Hyman, and Brian Sozzi speak with Luminar Founder & CEO Austin Russell about the company’s design vision for robos-taxis and trucks, overall outlook, and much more.

Video Transcript

MYLES UDLAND: And let's take a look at shares of Luminar Technology, up here about 2%. The company out yesterday announcing its new Blade concept for its integrated autonomous driving vehicle and technology associated with that. Joining us now to discuss and try to put in plain English just what Luminar is working on these days, Austin Russell joins us once again-- CEO and founder of the company.

So, Austin, I guess let's just start kind of walking us through what you guys announced yesterday and how much closer it brings you to having a lot more of your technology in commercialized fleets.

AUSTIN RUSSELL: Yeah, no, definitely, and can definitely dive into that. And by the way, you know, with all the hubbub you're talking about with Coke-- I mean, I basically drink it like agua, anyway. So might as well just be their ambassador while we're at it.

But yeah, in terms of the event and everything we got going on, we yesterday actually announced a few different things. First was the first fully integrated Iris-- our lidar sensing system and platform-- into a vehicle and a consumer car that we were able to actually, then, take around as part of the second thing that we were doing-- was the first opportunity for live drives with the public of really seeing Iris. And expanding beyond just the core launch partners that we have for Iris to be able to kick off a global customer roadshow with this.

And then number 3 is showing off not just what we have today, but also a glimpse into the future of how we can see autonomous vehicles beyond just consumer vehicles, but also with robotaxis and with trucks evolving into the future. And we were able to show a cool vision for what that could look like. And, really, we've expanded a lot beyond just a lidar company, so to say. We've taken and solidified our leadership position there.

But actually on the graphic that you're showing, you can see the Luminar lidar integrated into the roofline of the concept vehicle to be able to show a blade-like halo around the top of the vehicle. It gets you a full 360 degree field of view. This is what happens when you can design a car from the ground up with Luminar integrated, and we hope to have this as inspiration for the next generation of vehicles that automakers will be producing over the course of the next decade. Because, I mean, for people to produce the next generation vehicle platforms that come out five or even 10 years later-- I mean, that's where the work starts today.

Of course, we have a lot of stuff going on today that's the here and now. We've been designing-- we're really the first company that had autonomous systems designed into production vehicles, and the first opportunity to really get out there to enable this capability into the broader world from both a safety standpoint and an autonomy standpoint.

BRIAN SOZZI: Austin, you are in New York City this week testing this stuff out. I saw a photo of you in the backseat of a car. That car you were in, does that-- did that drive by itself? And if it didn't, when might a car like that drive itself around without a driver in the mean streets of New York City?

AUSTIN RUSSELL: Yep. So yes, we did the event live from New York yesterday here, as you can see. When it comes down to it, what we were showing off was the lidar data in terms of what we could see in the environment around it and how the car sees and understands the world. This is with our series production lidar. Ultimately, we work with the automakers themselves in developing the holistic software stack that powers the autonomous systems there and are providing a number of those systems. So it requires an end-to-end solution with the automaker.

The timelines that they're planning for for these deployments are anywhere from, you know, towards the-- generally towards the end of 2022 through 2025 is kind of the sweet spot of where a lot of the different automakers are working with us. And this is for a couple of different key functionalities. One is it to substantially enhance the safety profile of the vehicle by enabling much better active safety features. It's what we're calling proactive safety, like much better automatic emergency braking, automatic emergency steering-- stuff that will basically prevent you from colliding into things in front of you, which is-- actually, surprisingly, these systems are not very effective today. And that's why there's a direct opportunity to prove that.

Additionally, for autonomy, there's a direct opportunity to start implementing this on highways right off the bat. So basically, you can manually drive over to the freeway then take your hands off, eyes off, read a book, use your phone, work on your laptop, watch a movie, take a nap, whatever it may be. And then a few minutes before the final exit, do a planned manual takeover and drive to the final destination.

Those are the functionalities that are being planned out in that time frame. And that's really where we would expect to be likely the first autonomous deployment out on the road and much less at scale, as well, with these automakers. So it's what makes all the difference.

JULIE HYMAN: Obviously, this is really exciting stuff, Austin, that we have been talking about as you've been on this journey. I want to ask you-- there's a lot of excitement about autonomous and EV tech in general-- just car tech let's call it broadly. And, of course, there have been a lot of entrants into the market, you being one of, I'd say, more than a handful over the past six months or so. We've already seen that some of them were maybe not all they were cracked up to be. And so I wonder, as you look at the industry broadly, what do you think is going to separate the ones that are going to go to production, that are going to be more successful in the long run, from those that don't seem to be on as solid footing, shall we say?

AUSTIN RUSSELL: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And I think it's really important to also separate out the kind of things that we're doing than, let's say, the EV landscape for sake of clarity. We're not trying to build cars here, which is really good. Building cars is really, really hard and kind of its own game altogether. What we've been able to build is the fundamental enabling technology for autonomous vehicles, and then work with all of the automakers in the broader landscape to be able to see this through. And that's how you can see by far the greatest economic opportunity, where we can directly address this multitrillion dollar existing production consumer vehicle industry. As well as the trucking industry, for that matter, and ultimately robotaxis.

So with that, you know, that's where-- we were very clear from the beginning about the milestones, the progress, and everything in terms of what we've laid out. Because the thing is is that execution is everything when it comes to these things. Even if you have the best technology, even if you have all that stuff, being able to meet the milestones you have for the program, being able to actually get designed into these vehicles, it makes all the difference.

So with that, we've continued to be able to execute and do so. We actually laid out, at the beginning of the year, five key milestones for the business between-- as it relates to product, commercial milestones, financial milestones. We've actually been meeting or beating all of those that we originally set out to do.

It's obviously-- you know, there's a diversity of companies. Some will, you know, overpromise and underdeliver. Some will underpromise and overdeliver. And we want to be, as much as possible, in that latter camp.

BRIAN SOZZI: Austin, you've called yourself the chief autonomous industry skeptic. Why do you call yourself that?

AUSTIN RUSSELL: Right. Yeah, so a couple of things. You know, I think when it comes down to that, it's really important to stay grounded in the autonomous vehicle world and everything. You know, you can say just a handful of years ago, there were a number of companies that were out there saying, hey, we're going to have these huge urban robotaxi deployments that are going to be picking you up and dropping you off in a city near you by 2021. Obviously, that didn't happen.

And that's where I think some folks became a little bit disillusioned when it comes to, OK, well, what does autonomy really mean? Like, when is it going to happen? Clearly, there's this multitrillion dollar promise of-- for disruption of this industry. But how does it materialize? So that value hasn't changed. But what is important is to take a realistic view about the product that you're developing, the timeline that it can be deployed, and what all of that actually means.

And with that, we took a very focused approach. Like, you take a look at what do you think of when you talk about an autonomous vehicle company today? It's usually, like, Waymo, Cruise, Zoox, Argo, Aurora, Emotional-- like, these guys. And they're effectively all focused on urban robotaxis, so basically a ride-sharing Uber-like use case of picking a passenger up from point A to point B in a city environment.

That's a great problem to solve. It's actually an incredibly difficult problem to solve, though. And at the same time, part of the Luminar studio day was also to show, hey, you know, right now, the existing systems-- there's these giant roof racks full of sensing system kind of monstrosities out there. How do you actually have something that's going to make its way into a production vehicle, into a consumer vehicle? That's always been the holy grail of the industry. People thought that was going to be last. But actually, it came around to be first.

But I've always had a view of-- a skeptical view of, you know, we have to be realistic about the timelines, about what's going to materialize when. And then, as a result, we've been able to actually use that to our advantage to be able to get designed into the consumer vehicle market, to get designed into an existing market. And that's how we're getting to these first deployments and at greater scale than anyone else has really seen.

And with that, with the studio day, we're able to show off-- it doesn't have to be a $100,000 roof rack full of sensing systems on your roof. It can be something that's cleanly integrated into the roofline of the vehicle. We actually had a Toyota RAV4 that we were able to show of the integration of in terms of what it can look like and what the new look of an autonomous vehicle is, as well as giving a glimpse into the future of what designs can look like in the future.

MYLES UDLAND: Well, Austin, as you know as well as anybody, Apple wasn't the first company to put all that stuff in one package, but they put it in the nicest looking package. And that is why it worked out for them. Certainly, it does feel like autonomous will kind of follow that path. Austin, we'll get a full breakdown on what the rest of your diet looks like in addition to Coca-Cola next time we speak.

[LAUGHTER]

Really appreciate the time. "This Morning," Austin Russell, founder and CEO of Luminar Technologies. We'll be in touch.

AUSTIN RUSSELL: Thank you.