Elon, a 25-year-old billionaire, and the great self-driving car debate

Tesla (cameras + AI) and Luminar Technologies (LIDAR) have 2 competing visions on how fully autonomous vehicles will be achieved.


December 7, 2020

One of the classic beefs in business history is The War of the Currents.

The battle, which took place in the late 1800s, saw famed inventors square off over the best way to deliver electricity, including:

  • Thomas Edison, who pushed the direct current (DC) method
  • Nikola Tesla, who pushed the alternating current (AC) method

Today, Elon Musk — who named his EV car company after one of the aforementioned inventors (we won’t say who) — is in a beef with similar stakes: the future of self-driving cars.

Outside of Musk, most of the car industry is using LIDAR

The acronym stands for “LIght Detection And Ranging.” Per The Verge, LIDAR “uses laser pulses to build a 3D model of the environment around the car.”

For self-driving cars, this technology helps a vehicle “see” other vehicles, pedestrians, stop signs, and bikes.

Last week, one of the leading startups in the LIDAR space, Luminar Technologies, went public.

Austin Russell — the company’s 25-year-old CEO, who founded Luminar at age 17 — is now the world’s youngest self-made billionaire.

Musk says LIDAR is ‘doomed’

That’s because equipping a car with sensors is quite expensive.

Luminar Technologies is aggressively working to bring LIDAR prices down.

In comparison, Tesla cars are primarily built on cameras and ever-improving AI algorithms.

Musk believes that combining these technologies — along with GPS, maps, and ultrasonic sensors — will allow Teslas to sufficiently “see” and achieve level 5 autonomy (no human input needed).

Luminar will supply Volvos by 2022

According to Ars Technica, it also has a big partnership with Mobileye, Intel’s vision-based autonomous vehicle subsidiary that works with a number of car manufacturers.

One big advantage that Tesla has over its LIDAR competitors is data. As of January 2020, more than 700k+ Tesla vehicles have collected 2B+ miles of real-life autopilot driving.

All of these miles — particularly the edge cases — make Tesla’s self-driving product better and better.

While The War of Self-Driving Cars (LIDAR/Tesla) won’t create a rock group name quite like The War of the Currents (AC/DC), the stakes are just as big.

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