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Luminar CEO: Autonomous vehicles aim to ‘enhance the driver, not replace the driver’

Luminar CEO Austin Russell joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss earnings, path to profitability, and the outlook for autonomous vehicles.

Video transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Luminar shares are seeing a pop after topping estimates in this latest quarter. That stock up nearly 5%. The global automotive technology company reported revenue of nearly 30% higher from the previous quarter and up 60% year on year. Luminar maintaining its full year guidance as it remains on track to achieve key 2022 milestones.

For more on all this, we have Luminar CEO Austin Russell joining us today. Austin, it's good to talk to you. I'm going to go through the numbers in a bit, but I want to point to an announcement that some would argue kind of overshadowed the strong quarter that you had.

Luminar's LIDAR equipment and software now shipping on cars made for China's largest car maker, SAIC. This certainly points to positive movements at a time when there's concerns about where self-driving is going. Talk to me about how that's progressing and what that tells you about the timeline for LIDAR adoption.

AUSTIN RUSSELL: Yeah, no, I think the whole point of what we've done is that really after 10 years of innovating, prototyping, developing, industrializing, we're finally making this journey into a series production. And this is really the first time in this industry when you see this level of technology actually make its way out of that whole moonshot R&D phase and into production vehicles. And it's something that we couldn't be more excited about. But yeah, it's happening. It's coming together.

And of course, SAIC is the largest Chinese automaker with their-- they have a new fully electric brand called Rising Auto with the R7 that we're launching on, but that's just the start. Just around the corner, you have Volvo with their EX 90 that they're going to be launching on actually one week from today, or actually a little under that, on November 9. And then we also just had Polestar. They just introduced the Polestar 3 a couple of weeks ago, also featuring Luminar. So all of this is converging. And this is just the start. Then Mercedes and Nissan and other partners that we have are fantastic.

AKIKO FUJITA: Let's talk about the numbers in the quarter, especially with the cash on hand. You ended the quarter with more than $550 million in cash. When you look at the spending, $150 to $200 million a year, it certainly looks like you are on track to reach profitability. Talk to me about the timeline you're looking at right now for the company.

AUSTIN RUSSELL: Yeah, so we're going to be hosting actually a Luminar Day come the first quarter of next year. We're going to outline all the details with regards to our timeline and plans associated with becoming cash flow positive. But I think the key thing is, is that we have more than enough capital at the table to be able to get that cash flow positivity with a strong buffer as well for everything that we want to do for our core business and beyond.

So that's really good, but-- and fortunately, in a very privileged position when it comes to capital needs. And there's huge upfront capital requirements as well that's needed to make this happen, in addition to, of course, the technology, the people, the resources and partnerships, the manufacturing. All of that has to come together. But yeah, that's-- we're in a great place there.

And then when it comes to generating real business and revenue, this is the first time that this kind of tech is making its way into series production for these kinds of next generation safety and autonomous capabilities. And having that revenue ultimately is able to be very helpful towards building a viable business, whereas the vast majority of autonomous vehicle related companies are either-- have pre-revenue or little to no revenue for the foreseeable future. So that's a fundamental differentiator as well in terms of what we're actually able to make happen and the growth curve with the automakers.

AKIKO FUJITA: And finally, Austin, you know, you've pointed to some of the positive steps you're taking in the partnership that you have with carmakers. But we have had some setbacks in the autonomous driving push, right? We had Ford and Volkswagen most recently pulling the plug essentially on their self-driving ambitions.

And I wonder where you think things are headed. I mean, was this kind of shakedown inevitable, given the technology that's needed to get to full autonomous driving? I mean, it's sort of the grand vision that was set out years ago in terms of where this is headed. I mean, is that still intact?

AUSTIN RUSSELL: Well, one, the grand vision that I think many gave in the industry is absolutely not intact. But the key distinction here is that that's a completely different world than the kind of stuff that we're doing here at Luminar. The main issue with what we've seen from a broader autonomous vehicle standpoint is that the vast majority of companies have really been focused around eliminating the driver with all out robo taxis in urban environments.

So the big bet that we made was actually not that at all. It was actually for consumer production vehicles and trucks as well, as an opportunity to be able to improve the safety of the vehicle, enhance the driver, not replace the driver altogether. And that's a key distinction here of how this is happening. And the rest of it is actually-- I mean, for what it's worth it's not any different than what I was saying a handful of years ago. I think people may be just listening more now.

But the reality is, is that that's a 10-year journey. That's a long time frame here to what we're doing is already starting to make its way into production cars today. It takes years' worth of work in advance and a lead-up of what we've had to do to make it happen.

But because of the fact that we're focused on safety, we're focused on much more constrained problems here, getting rid of that $100,000 roof rack full of sensors and a supercomputer in the trunk, and now having somebody that can go on to production vehicles as a cleanly integrated system, that's what we think is incredibly powerful.

And that's why we're seeing all this adoption by all these major automakers. And I think as the industry evolves, we're only going to see more and more people pivot towards that strategy, which ultimately ends up, just as with that Argo case, ends up being more synergistic with the stuff that we're doing.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah, it's certainly been great to track all the progress with Luminar. Austin Russell, Luminar CEO, appreciate your time today. Thanks so much for joining us.