As autonomous vehicles have set out in their long journey of transforming transportation, tech companies have added a new soaring spirit of innovation into the auto sector. Taking a look at how the major auto manufacturers have been keeping pace with this surge of invention and implementation, we see varied trajectories and responses. A few companies have joined the race towards Level 5 (fully automated) rollout while others are not in too much of a hurry. Most auto majors are however looking to acquire the tech companies that form crucial parts of the technology mix needed to achieve fully autonomous vehicles. Auto companies are also forming partnerships among themselves to be in the thick of the action and also towards evolving standards.
The United States leads the way
General Motors-is developing self-driving vehicles that are all electric. GM has been tech-oriented beyond automobiles right from the 60s with its development of the Lunar Rover together with Boeing for NASA’s Apollo 15 mission in 1971. GM’s autonomous driving efforts received a fillip after it acquired Californian company Cruise Automation in 2016. Founded in 2013, Cruise initially worked with Seed Accelerator Y Combinator. Cruise and GM have their R&D center in San Francisco. The ‘Cruise’ vehicles are fitted with ten cameras with each of them clicking ten frames per second. They are being tested in California, Arizona and Michigan. Cruise is scheduled to roll out in 2019. Buying into the potentially first-ever Level 5 commercial vehicle, Honda recently picked up a stake in Cruise with an investment of $2.75 Billion. The self-driving car division has received valuation estimates as high as $43 billion – making it more than 80% of GM’s total current market value.
Ford’s autonomous project is also steaming ahead in tandem with Pittsburgh-headquartered Argo AI, with an investment of $1 Billion in the latter. Also gearing up to tie up with other companies, Ford set up a new entity Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC in July 2018 to be based in Detroit. Ford plans to invest $4 Billion in this entity which also includes Argo AI. In ensuring continuous synergy with the tech industry, Ford has set up a campus in Palo Alto. Ford expects to launch its Level 4-capable vehicle in 2021. The company’s partners are Velodyne, SAIPS, Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC and Civil Maps. Ford is also testing in California, Arizona and Michigan. As recently as this week, Ford also announced a partnership with the Chinese internet giant, Baidu on a two-year project to test self-driving vehicles on Chinese roads.
Fiat Chrysler tied up with Waymo in May 2016. Waymo began as a Google project in 2009. Waymo’s system is being tested on Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid Minivan. Waymo is testing 600 Chrysler Pacifica vehicles right now without drivers with another 62,000 vehicles slated to join by the end of 2018. Waymo has completed autonomous testing over 10 Million miles (Six Million on the Chrysler Pacifica) and simulated testing over 7 Billion miles. Waymo has begun an Early Rider public trial in Phoenix, Arizona. Waymo also became the first company to receive the nod for driverless testing in California on public roads. The speed limit for the tests is 65 miles per hour over day and night in a number of defined areas including the headquarters of its and parent company Alphabet’s city of Mountain View. Waymo’s self-driving transportation service is set to launch by the end of 2018. Waymo also has a partnership with Jaguar wherein the electric I-Pace is also set to be tested soon with plans of adding 20,000 I-Pace vehicles to the Waymo fleet in the coming years.
Toyota is planning to install autonomous driving technology on its cars through its ‘Mobility Teammate Concept.’ The concept envisages driver-supervised automated driving. The company plans to equip its vehicles with this feature in 2020. Toyota’s autonomous development includes V2X Communication which encompasses Vehicle-to-Vehicle, Vehicle-to-Infrastructure and Vehicle-to-Pedestrian communication. Toyota companies are developing autonomous technologies in Japan, North America and Europe. It has investments in technology companies such as Nauto, Intuition Robotics and SLAMcore.
Nissan leaves it to the customer
Nissan is working with top universities in its Autonomous project having tied up with MIT, Stanford, Oxford and the University of Tokyo. It has a prototype with 12 cameras, 12 sonars, nine millimeter-wave radars, six laser scanners and a high-definition map. The company is working on steadily ramping up existing features such as cruise control and blindspot warning. Nissan says it is focused on empowering the driver at present as well as on issues of policy, regulation and affordability in different markets terming it as the ‘democratization of driving.’ The company stresses on removing the tiresome aspects of driving while working on autonomous technologies revolving around the driver. The company plans to provide options to users on the level of autonomy that they prefer in their vehicle. Instead of focusing on Level 1 to Level 5, the company looks at the way that the customer will be using the technology.
Nissan’s Seamless Autonomous Mobility (SAM) system is designed to guide vehicles through an unexpected situation such as an accident. In such unknown environments, the vehicle will connect with a remote Mobility Manager who will then take over the car and analyze the situation through the car’s cameras and controls. After moving the car past the unexpected situation, the controls return to the vehicle. All of this would take place without the passenger noticing anything. The system will continuously be learning through each such situation it encounters. Nissan sees fully-autonomous readiness by 2022.
BMW’s slow and steady approach
BMW is planning its autonomous technologies to be launched in 2021 and has formed partnerships with Intel, Mobileye, Continental, Magna, FCA, Active, Baidu, KPIT and TTTech for its Highway Pilot and Urban Pilot programs. The company has begun development of a Simulation center in Munich with an investment of 100 million Euros. In its on-road testing implementation, BMW became the first international auto manufacturer to get the Autonomous Driving test license in China in May 2018. Earlier, BMW had demonstrated a Highly-Automated model in 2016 in China. Two of its 7 Series models are being used in the tests with another five vehicles set to join by December 2018.
Towards the development of high-definition digital maps that will aid level 4 driving, BMW picked up a stake in digital map company HERE in 2014. The company partnered with Audi AG and Daimler AG in its acquisition of HERE. BMW currently envisages the development of fail-proof systems over brakes, steering and electrical systems in Level 3 Driver-Assistance technologies by 2021. It plans to launch the highly-automated iNEXT in 2021. BMW says the Level 3 iNEXT will also have the capabilities of Level 4 and Level 5 at the time of the launch. BMW sees Level 5 Pilot projects in city centers in the 2020-2030 decade where the driving environment will be slow speed.
Volvo has well-defined plans
Volvo, the Swedish company, seems to be matching or even exceeding the zeal of the American companies in Autonomous technology. Not only is Volvo targeting Level 5 but it has a whole new interpretation of Level 5 applications. Volvo began its Drive Me project in 2013 and is testing with tis XC90 model. Part of the funding for the project comes from FFI-Strategic Vehicle Research and Innovation, a tie-up between Swedish automakers and the Swedish Government.
Volvo has set its sights on a slice of the airline industry with its Volvo 360c concept visualizing a world without airports and door-to-door transportation. It has set 2021 as its launch date for unsupervised autonomous vehicles.
Also partnering with a tech company, Volvo entered into a strategic partnership with Uber in August 2016. In November 2017, Volvo announced that it would begin selling autonomous-compatible base vehicles to Uber between 2019 and 2021 on a non-exclusive basis. As recently as this week, Baidu and Volvo announced plans to mass produce the vehicles for the Chinese market. These vehicles will likely be based on Apollo, Baidu’s Open Source platform for autonomous vehicles.
Race to the Fifth Level
Even as GM and Fiat Chrysler have announced precise rollout dates for their autonomous vehicles, the scope for widespread adoption looks likely only in the latter half of the next decade. However, initial deployment at slow speeds and in specified routes could well be up and running sometime next year. We anticipate that these initial deployments will lead to a mainstream discussion on all implications and ramifications towards the framing of regulations. Some of the leading American AV majors have come together to form The Partnership for Transportation Innovation and Opportunity with a mission to promote open and thorough discourse to determine the opportunities and challenges autonomous vehicles may create for American workers.
The race to the fifth level continues to progress with great fervor despite all the technical and regulatory challenges that remain to be solved. Companies aspiring to remain relevant have to reposition themselves strategically, and regulators must catch-up to ensure safety of the public without impeding the race for innovation.