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This article is part of the special topic "Future Mobility".

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Waymo's fully self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan 5.
Waymo's fully self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan 5.
( Source: Waymo)

AUTONOMOUS DRIVING 5 top autonomous vehicle companies to watch in 2020

| Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Erika Granath

Many companies are working on developing self-driving cars and hardware for autonomous vehicles of all types. But some are further along in terms of real-world testing and practical experience than others.

As the development of self-driving cars progresses at a rapid clip, numerous companies have stated their intentions to market and sell autonomous automobiles. But increasingly, there's starting to be a difference between those companies that are simply "talking the talk" and those that are actually test-driving their vehicles on public roads.

Top 5 Autonomous Vehicle Companies

Below is an approximate ranking of worldwide companies in terms of expertise and capabilities for self-driving cars:

1. Waymo

Waymo's fully self-driving reference vehicle, Firefly 1.
Waymo's fully self-driving reference vehicle, Firefly 1.
(Source: Waymo)

In the world of autonomous vehicles, Google parent Alphabet's Waymo subsidiary is far and away ahead of any other company—as measured by quantity of vehicles operating, number of kilometers driven (32 million in the real world and more than 16 billion in simulation) and the sophistication of its technology.

In addition to camera, LiDAR, and radar sensors, Waymo cars also use microphones to detect sirens from emergency vehicles for autonomous functionality.

Currently, Waymo operates a Waymo One fleet of Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Autonomy Level 4 robo-taxis in Phoenix, Arizona (most of which have a person upfront functioning as a backup driver).

Prototype testing of fully driverless SAE Autonomy Level 5 vehicles is also taking place concurrently.

Phoenix was chosen for Waymo's taxi service due to its ideal conditions of weather, traffic and environment compared to other locations around the world. However, since allowing all Phoenix residents to sign up for autonomous rides, Waymo has now set up additional testing locations in Michigan and California to acclimatize its vehicles to winter and other conditions.

2. GM Cruise

General Motors' Cruise division has the world's second-largest autonomous fleet—180 vehicles—undergoing testing.
General Motors' Cruise division has the world's second-largest autonomous fleet—180 vehicles—undergoing testing.
(Source: Cruise)

General Motors' Cruise divisionGeneral Motors' Cruise division has the world's second-largest autonomous fleet—180 vehicles—undergoing testing; so far, they've driven more than 1.6 million kilometers (1 million miles). Although most of the business' vehicles look like standard Chevrolet Bolt hatchbacks, under the skin, 40 percent of these cars' parts have been modified for self-driving, according to GM Cruise Vice President Mo ElShenawy.

"Unlike other autonomous vehicle companies, being deeply integrated with one of the world's largest automakers like General Motors positions Cruise to manufacture self-driving cars on an assembly line in Orion, Michigan, which is capable of producing hundreds of thousands of vehicles per year," says ElShenawy.

For sure, General Motors' 111-year heritage and experience in car manufacturing give it a strong edge over dozens of other players. These include tech companies like Apple, which may be stronger from an intelligence point of view but actually have comparatively little experience with real-world driving and road endurance.

3. Argo AI

Argo AI's self-driving car during testing in Pittsburgh.
Argo AI's self-driving car during testing in Pittsburgh.
(Source: Argo AI)

Ford Motor Company's Argo AI startup is testing its 100 vehicles in at least six cities in the United States so far. Although Ford invested $1 billion in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based firm (initially giving the company a majority stake), it's technically still an independent venture.

The business has also attracted a $2.6 billion investment from the world's largest automaker, Volkswagen. Unlike Alphabet's Waymo or GM's Cruise, however, Ford and VW don't foresee Argo AI producing its own vehicles; instead, they want Argo to manufacture self-driving technology for other companies, initially for fleet-based services such as robo-taxis and delivery firms. Eventually, sales (via major automakers) to consumers may follow.

For now, Argo AI's test vehicles are Ford Fusions, but that could change in the future. "In a very short period of time, we've been able to basically put the system at a level of maturity far beyond what other companies of our age have been able to do," states Nick Twork, senior communications counsel at Argo AI.

4. Tesla

Tesla's Model S, the first fully electric sedan, is an evolution in automotive engineering.
Tesla's Model S, the first fully electric sedan, is an evolution in automotive engineering.
(Source: Tesla)

Entrepreneur Elon Musk's Tesla is a perennial competitor in the autonomy leadership sweepstakes. But Musk's habit of aggrandizing and overstating his ventures' achievements puts Tesla at number four on this list.

It's true that Tesla has more production vehicles capable of advanced levels of autonomy actually on the road than any other manufacturer. Yet Musk has been outspoken about the exclusion of light detection and ranging (LiDAR) navigation technology from his cars. This is despite the fact that nearly every other carmaker promoting autonomous vehicles makes use of it. (Tesla instead uses ultrasonic, radar, and 2D camera devices to enable its cars' autonomous operations.)

"Anyone relying on LIDAR is doomed. Doomed. [LiDAR is] expensive sensors that are unnecessary. It's like having a whole bunch of expensive appendices," Musk has said. "In cars, [LiDAR] is freaking stupid… as [Tesla AI director] Andrej [Karpathy] was saying, once you solve vision, it's worthless."

Tesla has more than 600,000 Tesla production vehicles on global roads, having collectively driven more than 3.2 billion kilometers (2 billion miles). Musk has thusly built up a level of experience with some autonomy features (SAE Level 2 and below, with prototype vehicles reaching Level 5) that's enviable in the car industry.

Furthermore, in 2019, Musk boldly promised that by the end of 2020, there would be one million fully autonomous (SAE Level 5) Teslas on the road as part of an individual owner/ridesharing network. As time rapidly marches on, however, it appears this boast may well be another in a long line of unkept promises from Musk as he would have to more than double his 2019 production of vehicles to achieve it.

5. Baidu

China's Google, Baidu, open sourcing its driverless technology shows their roadmap towards commercialization
China's Google, Baidu, open sourcing its driverless technology shows their roadmap towards commercialization
(Source: Baidu)

China's Baidu rounds out this list, with more than 300 autonomous test vehicles on Chinese roads having driven more than 3 million kilometers (1.8 million miles) in 23 cities. Like Google, Baidu started in the search engine business but soon branched out into other industries.

The market for autonomous vehicles and mobility services in China is set to be worth $500 billion by 2030. Baidu, which has teamed up with Chinese carmaker FAW Group, has inked further agreements with Chinese auto manufacturers BAIC, King Long Motor Group, JAC Motor, and NIO for various partnerships.

For now, like Waymo, Baidu has started a 45-car Robo-Taxi service to both demonstrate and test its vehicles in Changsha in China's Hunan Province. Similar to Waymo's service, these vehicles will operate at SAE Level 4, having a driver present but not active within each car. Baidu has said that fully driverless Level 5 operability will come by 2025.

Honorable Mention

Besides the above players, other companies to watch in the autonomous vehicle space include Apple, Daimler, BMW, Audi, Volkswagen, Lyft, and Uber. Beyond these firms, many startups are focused on vertical markets such as taxi and delivery services that are at least as far down the road as several of the Top 5 companies named above. These include Zoox, Nuro, Aptiv, Autox, and DiDi.

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