Which Companies Are Winning the Autonomous Vehicle Race?

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
which companies are winning the autonomous vehicle race

Ford’s head of research, Ken Washington, suggests that the general public won’t be able to buy a fully autonomous vehicle until sometime between 2026 and 2031. That’s a little later than CEO Mark Fields’ claim of “by 2025.”

We already know that companies are making timeline promises they can’t really keep but, with Ford currently working on an autonomous ride-sharing fleet to be used on public roadways in 2021, the amount of wiggle-room in Washington’s estimate is a little unsettling. If the technology is sufficient to shuttle people around in a taxi, shouldn’t it be equally adept in accomplishing that task regardless of what seat the human is occupying? Exactly who is leading in this race?

“It’s really hard to guess and predict the pace of the technology,” Washington said during his keynote address at the SAE WCX World Congress Experience. “Our current view is the adoption rates will be relatively gradual.”

One reason that ride-sharing fleets will precede consumer-owned self-driving vehicles is because Ford is going to roll them out with SAE Level 4 autonomy. While some companies — like Tesla — claim they are already on the cusp of Level 5, major manufacturers have been more cautious. That has not stopped automakers from making all manner of assurances, however.

Automotive News quoted Washington as saying, “This is not science fiction. This is not a research project. This is something we’re going to make happen, and others will, too.”

There isn’t really any doubt of that anymore, but where does Ford stand in the big picture against its rivals? According to Navigant Research, which has kept track of all the players since 2015, the Blue Oval will likely be the first company to reach Level 5 and bring a self-driving car to the consumer market. A lot of that has to do with its focus on mobility and the massive investments into the technology required to make it a reality. Ford has pursued autonomous vehicles since it entered the DARPA Grand Challenge in 2005, giving it a head start over most of its rivals.

General Motors is the next most likely candidate. GM has recently made several large investments into self-driving cars. CEO Mary Barra has also said that it will begin testing a self-driving version of the Chevrolet Bolt in Michigan as soon as possible — with additional testing areas located in various cities across America.

Also in the running is the Renault-Nissan alliance. The two are already rolling out the ProPILOT self-driving feature on production cars. While it doesn’t cover all driving scenarios, it is groundbreaking and shows a serious commitment toward autonomous technology.

Interestingly, Navigant Research ranked all of the German automakers next. While Volkswagen has been in the self-driving race for nearly as long as Ford, the research firm seems to think that Europe’s tighter restrictions on autonomous testing might hinder the more Euro-centric companies. Still, most promise some form of fully operational autonomy by 2020. Daimler has already successfully tested driverless trucks on public roadways.

Google’s Waymo would have been higher ranked, had the company possessed lower costs to produce the hardware necessary for their test rigs. It tied with Volvo, which is currently partnering with Uber while using a separate development team, ready to hand over test cars to families in Sweden and China.

Delphi, Hyundai, PSA, Tesla, ZF, and Toyota all fared middle of the pack. If you’re wondering why Tesla Motors isn’t number one, the Navigant report is skeptical that the company can ever achieve true autonomy without using LIDAR technology. It also claims that drivers misusing Tesla’s Autopilot system has set a bad precedent.

Rounding out the bottom of likely candidates is Honda, Uber, and NuTonomy. Despite lots of attention placed on Uber’s programs, run-ins with local government and a lawsuit with Waymo place it low on Navigant’s list.

[Image: Ford Motor Company]

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4 of 9 comments
  • Raph Raph on Apr 04, 2017

    Huh, where did I read part of the reason Ford is losing out to the likes of Tesla due to being so far behind in the autonomous vehicle game? I'm not being facetious but I read that somewere probably some site in love with Tesla I guess.

    • See 1 previous
    • Mcs Mcs on Apr 04, 2017

      @Matt Posky I'm not so sure that LIDAR is needed. They have forward-looking radar and that should be enough. I have LIDAR on my system, but I may pull it off. I don't like the resolution and I've had problems on bumpy roads. Also, I'm focusing not only on locating objects, but knowing what they are for behavior prediction and artificial intuition. It's working well (even with slightly fuzzy images), but cameras are the only way to do it. When we get femto-photography, we'll have something far, far better than any LIDAR system.

  • David C. Holzman David C. Holzman on Apr 05, 2017

    I'll be surprised if these things are for sale before the mid-'30s.

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