Luminar, a leading maker of laser lidar for self-driving and semi-automated vehicles, is accused of passing off a next-generation chip design created by a rival as its own technology after showing an image of the processor at a recent investor conference and in materials on its website. Lidwave, the Israeli startup making the claim, says it plans to take legal action over the matter.
The image, identified as a photonic integrated circuit by Luminar in its Feb. 28 conference and webcast with no reference to Lidwave, looks identical to a chip on Lidwave’s website that is its core technology. The Jerusalem-based company sent a cease-and-desist letter to Luminar on March 14 asking it to remove the image. It also notified the Securities and Exchange Commission of Luminar’s “misuse of its product image to falsely promote its abilities and securities to investors.”
Lidwave said it hadn’t received a response from the company as of 3 pm New York time on Friday. The SEC did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter.
“Integrated photonics allows lidar to become as scalable and profitable as anybody has imagined … But surprisingly, the picture Luminar presented of a photonic integrated circuit as their solution is not their solution, but basically the exact image of our lidar,” Lidwave CEO Yehuda Vidal told Forbes. “We will continue with a lawsuit if needed because it’s a very huge problem for us. Some of our customers are very confused about what we do versus what they do.”
The image appeared during a presentation by Mike McCauliffe, head of Luminar’s semiconductor team. The full Luminar Day webcast on YouTube has nearly 750,000 views. “The presenter couldn’t confirm the original image source, but we are replacing it,” company spokesman Milin Mehta told Forbes.
The company did not respond to Lidwave’s other claims. The chip image remains in Luminar’s presentation and YouTube video as of the time of publication.
Lidar’s ability to create detailed, 3D maps of a vehicle’s surroundings using lasers has made it a core technology in the race to perfect self-driving cars and trucks. But it’s also relatively expensive, with individual units costing thousands of dollars each. Luminar, which has high-volume supply agreements with automakers including Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Nissan, Polestar, China’s SAIC and truckmaker Daimler, is poised to be the biggest supplier of the technology by driving down the cost dramatically in the years to come.
Over the past five years, Orlando-based Luminar, created by optics prodigy (and Forbes 30 Under 30) alum Austin Russell moved from being one of dozens of lidar startups vying to challenge Velodyne, the first company to commercialize the technology for autonomous vehicles, to the de facto industry leader, in terms of the number of vehicles that will be using its sensors. Russell told Forbes last month that he intends to have Luminar lidar in “millions of vehicles on the road within a few years.”
Processing vast amounts of data collected by laser sensors requires ever more powerful chips that must also be cheaper and easier to produce. Lidwave’s Vidal said that is exactly what his company, formed in 2019 and hoping to begin commercial deliveries in 2024, is working to perfect.
“The main problem holding back wide-scale adoption of lidar is its cost resulting from extremely complex micro-precision assembly. Today there is no lidar producer that’s conclusively solved the economy-of-scale (production) challenge,” he said. “A photonic integrated chip platform is basically the Holy Grail for lidar.”