Meet the 27-year-old billionaire whose Orlando company is helping create an ‘uncrashable car’

Austin Russell joins anchor Justin Warmoth on ‘The Weekly’

ORLANDO, Fla. – On the outskirts of UCF at Central Florida Research Park, one tech startup is working toward making driving significantly safer.

Luminar has a goal of saving 100 million lives over the next 100 years with its high-tech, lidar-based remote sensing system. Lidar, which stands for “light detection and ranging,” uses the light from a laser to collect measurements and generate precise 3D information about the shape of the Earth and the characteristics of its surface.

It’s the same technology autonomous vehicles use to avoid obstacles and navigate the roads safely, essentially serving as the self-driving vehicle’s eyes.

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However, instead of going all in on driverless cars, Luminar’s 27-year-old founder, Austin Russell, told anchor Justin Warmoth on “The Weekly” he’s more focused on using his company’s lidar to ultimately create an “uncrashable car” by improving driver-assist systems in a big way.

“The whole focus for us is enhancing drivers, making drivers better, and saving lives today — not just about those autonomous capabilities,” Russell said. “I think that’s a really important and critical part of this because the bet was that it’s going to take way longer than people would anticipate seeing that through.”

The bet paid off — and in a big way. Luminar went public in 2020, making Russell the world’s youngest self-made billionaire at the age of 25.

The company, which Russell founded when he was just 17 years old, has inked deals with some of the world’s biggest automotive manufacturers, including Volvo, Nissan and Mercedes-Benz, to install its lidar system in millions of new vehicles over the next few years.

“We’re equipping our technology on existing, certified production vehicles to enable better collision avoidance,” Russell said. “If it senses that you’re going to get into an accident or a collision, it can take over the braking system and take over the steering wheel to get you out of that situation.”

So, what separates Luminar’s technology from the rest? Russell said a key reason is it’s built entirely from the ground up.

“We make all of our own components, chips, everything that’s gone into it today to achieve this breakthrough level of performance,” he said. “We sort of had our claim to fame by having this huge 10x improvement in performance capabilities, safety, and what we could enable by seeing very long distances, very accurately, in a league no one else could.”

While Luminar has a presence in Silicon Valley, the majority of its production happens at its Orlando headquarters. In fact, the company just cut the ribbon on a new long-range lidar test facility along Barack Obama Parkway.

Russell said Central Florida’s rich talent pool is another major factor in the company’s early success. The largest Department of Defense laser programs, including Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, have a significant presence in Orlando as well.

“When it comes to hardware and these types of lidar systems, Orlando has been amazing,” Russell said. “I think that was really a key driver, and also just seeing the potential of Orlando and Central Florida generally. I think it was substantially underestimated in terms of the capabilities of what you can get out of it.”

Watch the full interview in the video player above.

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About the Author:

Justin Warmoth joined News 6 in February 2013 as our Brevard County reporter. In March of 2016, after anchoring the weekend mornings since August of 2015, Justin was promoted to weekday morning anchor. You can catch him Monday through Friday mornings from 5-7 a.m. and at noon.