Chinese Carmaker SAIC Teams Up with Lidar Specialist Luminar to Make New Self-Driving Cars

China’s largest automaker SAIC Motor is partnering with US lidar producer Luminar to develop autonomous driving technologies for a new high-tech line of vehicles, the companies announced on Thursday.

Luminar’s Iris lidar is expected to be installed in the roofline of the new “R brand” vehicles, the company disclosed in a press release. The new series of vehicles will begin production in 2022 and will be able to drive autonomously on highways and have advanced driver assistance features.

As part of the strategic partnership, Luminar will open a new office in Shanghai, where SAIC Motor is headquartered.

California-based Luminar produces lidar sensors that bounce laser beams off the objects around a vehicle, then generate a 3D point map for the car’s on-board computers. Working alongside the car’s cameras and radar systems, the critical technology will enable self-driving vehicles to “see” its surroundings and avoid pedestrians and other obstacles.

The company states on its website that the technology enables the detection and classification of objects up to 250 meters ahead of a vehicle, in daylight or at night.

“Our new R brand line of vehicles will combine the best technology with luxury and comfort, and autonomous capabilities are central to that vision,” SAIC Motor Vice President Yang Xiaodong explained. “The only autonomous vehicle company we seriously considered was Luminar — they are in a league of their own in lidar technology and software, uniquely enabling us to achieve our vision in series production.”

SAIC, which also conducts joint ventures in China with General Motors (GM) and Volkswagen (VW),
plans to expand and standardize the equipment across all its vehicles in China.

The four-seat Hongguang Mini EV, launched last August through a joint venture with GM and Liuzhou Wuling Motors, sold 25,778 units in China in January, according to the China Passenger Car Association (CPCA). The base model is priced at just 28,800 yuan ($4,465).

SAIC is also aiming to export 1.5 million vehicles by 2025, including to European markets.

At present, GM and VW are developing self-driving technology separately from SAIC – GM through its majority-owned Cruise subsidiary, and VW alongside the minority-owned Argo AI, according to Reuters.

SAIC is “clearly leading the charge to set a new technology standard for both China and the industry at large,” Luminar Founder and CEO Austin Russell said, also adding that “Luminar’s hardware and software is uniquely able to make SAIC’s vision a reality at series production scale.”

Founded in 2012, Luminar went public in December via a merger with a blank check company. According to its quarterly results report announced on Thursday, the Nasdaq-listed firm booked orders potentially worth $1.3 billion as of the end of 2020.

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The company previously entered production deals with Daimler Trucks and Intel’s Mobileye. Last May, the young company also signed a multiyear agreement to supply lidar to Volvo’s first self-driving cars in 2022.