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Self-driving cars are getting close to reality – but who’ll be making them first?

The race is on.

Sci-fi movies and television have long imagined self-driving cars. From KITT in “Knight Rider” to the Johnny Cabs in “Total Recall” to the super futuristic Audi self-driving cars in “iRobot”, science fiction has presented multiple ideas about how self-driving cars would look and function. One thing that remains the same throughout these representations is that the cars are able to function without human interaction, leaving the human driver free to do whatever they want during their car rides. It’s all the benefits of being a passenger without having to deal with someone else in the car.

Many of these movies predicted that by this time we’d already have fully functional self-driving cars. In 2017 we’re not quite there yet, but we’re actually really close. Most major car manufacturers are designing or testing prototypes of self-driving cars, but the real progress is actually being made by technology companies outside the automotive industry.

Google was the first company to really break in to the self-driving car market, as early as 2009. From there, the race to develop self-driving technology began in earnest. Apple, Uber, and all the major auto companies have spent years developing technologies to rival Waymo’s, the current incarnation of Google’s self-driving car project.

Each company has their own approach and own proprietary technology to make self-driving cars work, but there are some common threads through each design. Self-driving cars will use a combination of cameras, radar sensors, laser sensors, and a super sophisticated on board computers to detect road conditions around the car. By sensing what’s going on around the car, self-driving cars will be able to steer the car, adjust the speed, and avoid obstacles, all without the driving using a steering wheel, accelerator, or brakes.

Some models of self-driving still have steering wheels and pedals so the driver can take control of the car if needed, but some models are beginning to roll out without steering wheels or pedals at all; fully automated cars.

The burning questions in such a competitive market are who will be able to go to market first and which features will be available when they do? Here’s a break down of the companies in the game right now and how close they are to fully self-driving cars.

Waymo

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Google’s self-driving car project started in 2009 and they’ve come a long way since then. There’s no arguing that Google’s self- driving cars are the most advanced and the closest to being commercially available. In December, Google’s parent company Alphabet officially formed Waymo, a company fully dedicated to self-driving car research, development, and testing.

Waymo has been testing self-driving cars on the road since 2012 and they hit public roads in 2015. The same year Waymo officially became the first company to test a fully self-driving car, one that had no pedals and no steering wheel. In 2016, they hit 2 million miles on the road and this year, they began testing fleets of Chrysler minivans in winter conditions.

Waymo is staying quiet about when they expect self-driving cars to be available for sale. They’re familiar with the old tech saying “don’t over promise and under deliver.” But it’s pretty clear that they’re the closest to market as of right now.

Uber

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Uber has been working the hardest to get to market before Waymo. The company has been working on their self-driving car technology with both Ford and Volvo. They are currently inserting their own technology in to the vehicles rather than working with the manufacturers directly.

Unfortunately, Uber has continually been running into problems. Users who have tested the cars so far observe that they aren’t very autonomous; the self-driving functions disengaged often, forcing the driver to take control of the vehicle. Then, in March, a Volvo vehicle with Uber’s self-driving technology flipped on an Arizona roadway. It seems clear that Uber’s technology is not yet on par with Waymo’s.

The company is also entangled in the first legal battle over intellectual property rights to self-driving car technology. Waymo has accused Uber of stealing technology from them, which Uber denies. However, a top ranking engineer at Uber did leave Waymo to pursue opportunities at Uber, so the accusation does make sense.

Uber isn’t as close to market or as problem-free as Waymo, but they are well-funded and have lots of hustle, so it’s possible they’ll catch up quickly. If they don’t get shut down by the lawsuit.

Apple

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Apple has remained tight lipped about their plans for self-driving cars. Apple only officially announced that they’d been working on self-driving cars in 2016, but they’ve been working on the technology since at least 2014. Just this month, Apple received approval to test a self-driving Lexus on public roads in California.

Even with test cars on the road, Apple is still being very secretive about where they’re headed with the technology. It seems like they may not be looking to sell self-driving cars to individuals. The popular rumor is that they’re working on rolling out a “transportation platform,” which could mean a variety of things.

All we really know right now is that Apple is ready to test its own self-driving cars on public roads. We’ll wait excitedly to hear more info from this notoriously secretive tech giant.

Tesla

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Tesla has always been one of the most innovative car companies out there. Tesla was the first company to truly popularize electric vehicles. Since then, they’ve been on the cutting edge of everything new in the auto industry, including self-driving cars. Tesla’s Autopilot features are already available for sale in their commercial vehicles. Tesla makes it clear that these are not fully automated vehicles, but Autopilot allows for much of the functionality that we’ve come to associate with self-driving cars.

Cameras, radar, and laser sensors embedded all around the vehicle make it possible for the cars to detect what’s going on around them and steer and adjust speed independently. The onboard computer uses complicated algorithms to collect and process all this data, allowing the car to adjust its movements.

In January of 2017 Tesla rolled out Enhanced Autopilot, which improved on the car’s current offerings. The functionality can be rolled out via the onboard computer, so new functionality is constantly available to those who have Enhanced Autopilot in their cars. Cars on the road with Enhanced Autopilot can merge, change lanes, and park themselves, all without driver assistance.

Though Tesla models aren’t to the point of removing the steering wheel and pedals, they are definitely the closest to having fully automated cars in the hands of customers. The cars their customers already have can essentially drive themselves.

Traditional Car Manufacturers

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The rest of the auto industry is working nonstop to catch up with the non auto tech companies and Tesla. Toyota and Volvo are the closest in the race. Volvo is already testing self-driving cars on the roads in Germany, and they are seeking to begin testing in London. Toyota is next in line. They have a functional prototype for their self-driving car, but they haven’t sought the necessary permits to test on public roads.

In February, Ford announced that it had bought Argo AI, an independent tech company working on self-driving cars, and that they were investing over 1 billion dollars in developing road worthy self-driving cars. Just this month, GM announced that they plan to invest $14 million in a new San Francisco research facility devoted to self-driving cars. Last year GM bought Cruise Automation to help them move their research forward.

Meanwhile, Volkswagen and their high end brand Audi, are still in the concept phase.

Self-driving cars are closer to commercial availability than we ever imagined they would be. Many tech insiders estimate that we’ll be able to commute with self-driving cars by 2025. At this point, it’s just a matter of who gets us there first.