Who will win the autonomous race?

3 mins read

AI has shaken the automotive industry to its core, inspiring a revolution. Every car manufacture wants to be number one and be the first to deliver an autonomous vehicle (AV). However, in 2018 designing a car isn’t just about getting people from A to B. It’s about safety, the experience, infotainment, Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), the environment and reducing emissions, and so much more. But who will win the race and be the first to cross the chequered flag?

What is an autonomous car?

Before we can evaluate what car manufactures are doing in terms of AV, it’s important to have a clear and consistent understanding of the different levels involved in the progression of autonomous vehicles. Industry experts have defined five levels, and at each, described the extent to which the car takes over the task and responsibility from the driver, and how the car and driver interact.

Level 1: Driver assistance. Driver assistance systems support the driver, such as automatic cruise control and automatic emergency braking, but do not take control.

Level 2: Partly automated driving. Driver assistance functions can control speed or steering but the driver must be hands-on at all times.

Level 3: Highly automated driving. In certain situations, the driver can disengage from driving for extended periods of time – some refer to this as ‘eyes off road’. The latest Audi A8 supports Level 3, for example.

Level 4: Fully automated driving. The car drives itself most of the time within specific areas such as cities or motorway. The driver must remain present and able to driver but can, for example, read a magazine.

Level 5: Fully automated. The driver can have “hands off, eyes off, brain off”. This means that there is no human driver and the people in the car are all passengers. There is no need for a steering wheel.

Numerous new car models are currently coming out with Level 2 functionality; however, as an industry, we have barely scratched the surface of ADAS functionality; far less full autonomy. Today, we are currently significantly ramping-up Level 2 capabilities in even mid-range cars and there are a few Level 3-enabled cars such as Audi A8, and the Tesla Model S and X.

Car manufacturers to watch

It is expected that by 2030, one in four cars on the road will be self-driving and currently, there is feverish investment and collaboration activity in the automotive community. Volvo (Geely) and Uber have a $300m deal to deliver driverless cabs, whilst General Motors (GM) has taken a $500m stake in Lyft but is also covering its bases by working with Uber too. In addition, the likes of Uber, Lyft and others are spending vast amounts on R&D making sure that they are early in the game.

We are also seeing a range of autonomous driving platforms, many of which are from China, such as Baidu Apollo, Tencent and Alibaba gaining momentum. In addition, Chinese Internet companies are building large software partnerships to be the preferred partner for those deploying autonomous vehicles.

Waymo (Google) and Ford are looking to deploy autonomous taxi services this year. Car manufacturers themselves are taking a position in rideshare companies, as well as looking to have self-owned car fleets for the Car as a Service (CaaS) opportunity. For example, Ford and GM have spun off their own independent carpooling companies to potentially take on the likes of DiDi and Uber.

In China, Baidu is testing autonomous vehicles in several cities and at least five Chinese car companies have licenses to test in the US. BMW and Toyota are both working with Chinese companies on early autonomous vehicles activity, while a Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi alliance is working with DiDi on carpooling services.

Waymo is being very aggressive in its launch timescales of its robo-taxi and has received the right to run such a service in Arizona, USA, starting as early as later in 2018. Multiple trials are currently underway and will help shape not only the response of the technology to highly complex urban conditions, but also what infrastructure is needed to support a further rollout, and what is required in terms of government regulation and laws to ensure that the autonomous car has a smooth transition.

The winners

It is honestly too early to say who is winning the race to deliver the first autonomous vehicle, but it is fair to say that all major car manufacturers and new entrants are investing heavily and making a play for to be early to market. Certainly, we are in for a very interesting decade as we race headlong into what will ultimately be an autonomous driving world and enjoy the benefits that it will bring.

Bryce Johnstone, Automotive Segment Director, Imagination Technologies