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Meet the 25-year-old newly minted billionaire betting on lasers to power autonomous driving

Julie Hyman
·Anchor
·3-min read

A 25-year-old newly-minted billionaire is using laser technology to usher in the next phase of autonomous driving. Austin Russell, founder and CEO of Luminar Technologies, could help bring self-driving cars and semi trucks to the roads by 2022.

Luminar went public Thursday through a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) called Gore Metropolous. The deal included almost $600 million in cash. Luminar shares — new ticker LAZR — started the trading session at $18, and rose by as much as 37% during the day. Russell holds 104.7 million shares — making his stake worth $1.9 billion at the $18 level.

Luminar has developed lidar technology to power autonomous vehicles. It uses lasers that bounce off surroundings to allow a vehicle to “see” where it’s going.

“It’s the key enabling systems that can allow these vehicles to see and understand the world around them reliably and accurately,” Russell told Yahoo Finance Live in an interview. “It’s easy for these cars to work 99% of the time, but it’s about the last 1% when you want to get these things out of R&D and into production.”

FILE - In this Monday, April 10, 2017 file photo, Luminar CEO Austin Russell monitors a 3D lidar map on a demonstration drive in San Francisco. Russell, now 22, was barely old enough to drive when he set out to create a safer navigation system for robot-controlled cars. His ambitions are about to be tested five years after he co-founded Luminar Technologies, a Silicon Valley startup trying to steer the rapidly expanding self-driving car industry in a new direction. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
FILE - In this Monday, April 10, 2017 file photo, Luminar CEO Austin Russell monitors a 3D lidar map on a demonstration drive in San Francisco. Russell, now 22, was barely old enough to drive when he set out to create a safer navigation system for robot-controlled cars. His ambitions are about to be tested five years after he co-founded Luminar Technologies, a Silicon Valley startup trying to steer the rapidly expanding self-driving car industry in a new direction. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

The company has signed contracts with companies from Volvo to Intel’s Mobileye. Then there’s the investment from Daimler, announced in October. As part of that partnership, Luminar’s tech could help big rigs navigate roads without human drivers as soon as 2022.

“I do believe the trucking and logistics industry is going to be one of the largest and also one of the most overlooked opportunities in this larger industry,” Russell said. “It’s nearly a trillion dollars a year in the U.S. alone...and a huge portion of it is up for grabs for whoever solves this problem.”

A SPAC spree

SPACs have become an increasingly popular way for companies to enter the public market, as an alternative to initial public offerings. According to SPACInsider, the number of deals has more than tripled this year over last.

[Click here for a Yahoo U explainer on SPACs.]

Alec Gores, the investor behind Gore Metropolous, has been on something of a SPAC spree, earning him the moniker “blank-check baron” from private-market data firm PitchBook. Russell said partnering with Gores and doing the deal made sense from a long-term strategy perspective versus exiting through an acquisition.

“We’re absolutely all-in for the long run to be able to work with all of these automakers and see the technology through into the real world at scale.”

Julie Hyman is the co-anchor of Yahoo Finance Live, weekdays 9am-11am ET.

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