Who Will Win the Self-Driving Car Race?
Every Memorial Day weekend, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hosts the Indy 500, the most prestigious event of the IndyCar racing calendar. Thirty-three racecars took to the track this year, but only one driver came out on top: Takuma Sato. Sato knows the race is grueling and a long-distance test for every driver. He also knows the rewards are more than worth the effort.
In many cases the race to build the first saleable, fully autonomous vehicle for U.S. roads is the same, grueling test. (Except for having a driver, of course) According to a recent report by the data-research company CB Insights, the self-driving car competition currently has more than 33 entries of its own, from the top-selling automakers as well as unconventional ones.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) released its first Federal Automated Vehicles Policy in September, saying that self-driving cars could lead to an “unprecedented advance in safety on U.S. roads and highways.” According to the DOT, “human error” was responsible for 94 percent of the last year’s auto crashes, during which an estimated 35,200 people lost their lives. So, you could say that whichever company wins the self-driving car race, the real winners will be the passengers.
Tesla blazing the trail
The auto company that’s furthest along—and the one that some say already has won the race—is the unconventional brand, Tesla.
The “Autopilot” technology in the Tesla Model S can operate the car in a wide variety of driving conditions, keeping the vehicle in its lane and on pace with traffic by digitally taking over the brakes, engine and steering wheel. So in a way, there are self-driving cars currently on the road.
To keep heading in the right direction, Tesla released its Autopilot Version 8 software update in September. Key advances include a “more detailed point cloud” that allows the system to access six times as many radar objects as before, as well as the ability to use those objects as part of 3D radar “snapshots” of driving conditions.
The updated Autopilot also allows a crowd-sourced solution to conditions that still challenge the system, such as when an overhead traffic sign seems like it’s in the roadway, due to changes in road elevation. Autopilot will “learn” what the Tesla fleet does in specific scenarios, and will then be able to compare that to what a given driver is doing in the future. When behaviors don’t match up, Autopilot will “know” how to react.
Other competitors in the race
Some of the industry’s mainstream titans are hot on Tesla’s wheels. General Motors, for instance, received a Popular Mechanics “Breakthrough Award” for its Super Cruise semi-autonomous driving technologies in 2013, and the technology is being fine-tuned in the Cadillac CT6 luxury sedan for a production launch later this year. That’s a little later than originally planned, but GM is taking extra time to address the specific concerns shown with Tesla’s Autopilot. A key will be technology similar to that used in drowsiness-alert systems, which can analyze driving behavior and use facial recognition to tell if a driver may be getting sleepy. For Super Cruise, the technology will ensure owners remain engaged in the driving experience.
Separately, GM also spent $1 billion to buy Cruise Automation, an outside company that specializes in autonomous-driving technology. GM also invested half that amount in the Lyft transportation company, a major competitor for Uber. GM expects its investment to pay off in a fleet of self-driving Lyft taxis that’s scheduled to begin testing sometime next year.
Among the automakers setting the pace with GM and Tesla are Audi and Volvo. Audi’s autonomous RS 7 has successfully lapped racetracks in Spain and California with journalists on board, even breaking the track record at the Parcmotor circuit in Barcelona. Further, Audi claims that when its next-gen A8 luxury sedan goes on sale next year, it will offer Level 3 autonomy. That means the driver can “cede full control” to the vehicle in certain scenarios, and “rely heavily” on the automatic driving functions.
At Volvo, the brand is building on its present line of driver-assistance measures with self-driving versions of its XC90 SUV. They’re part of the Drive Me project in Gothenburg, Sweden, where the vehicles will be given to “normal, everyday families” for testing on public roads. From there, the automaker expects to have autonomous driving technology ready for commercial use by 2021.
Volvo also serves up a fair amount of self-driving technology for its 2016-2017 roster. The new Volvo S90 is a prime example, thanks to a Pilot Assist function that can automatically steer the car even when it’s not following traffic.
Tech companies revving their engines
Conspicuously missing from the discussion so far are the self-driving cars from the technology companies. With all the buzz about those cute little Google-mobiles and continuing rumors about an Apple car, neither is likely to end up in customer driveways anytime soon. The barriers to entry in the auto industry are sky-high, from the costs needed to produce them, to who gets to sell them.
Remember, in many states, it’s illegal for Tesla to sell its vehicles directly to the public. Tesla got its start by repurposing cars built by another company—Lotus—and still only sells about 5,100 vehicles a month. Ford sells that number of F-150 pickups in fewer than 2.5 days. A future based on self-driving cars will require production capabilities closer to the former than the latter.
That helps explain why Google, for one, has partnered with Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles for a new phase in autonomous-driving research. This time, the initiative is backed by a fleet of 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans and a focus on ways to add autonomous-driving technology to the assembly line.
Other prominent tech collaborations include that between Microsoft and Toyota, as well as between Intel and BMW. Also, mirroring GM and Lyft, Uber has turned to Ford to explore self-driving cars. Meanwhile, The New York Times notes that Apple has “shuttered parts of its self-driving car project and laid off dozens of employees.”
As each carmaker makes its final lap toward the finish line, consumers await this cutting-edge technology that will also be a big win for passenger safety.
From a young age, Charles Krome felt destined to work in the automotive industry, growing up in Motor City with a last name like Krome. As an automotive writer for CARFAX, a leading used-car shopping website, Charles shares consumer advice on how to keep up with emerging technology when it comes to car buying.