Who Will Win the Global Race for Driverless Cars?


7 min read

An International Race of Our Time

In the 1960s, with the Cold War in full swing and the memory of both World Wars still fresh in many minds, a few of the most powerful governments in the world invested heavily in their space programs, prompting an international Race to the Moon. To a large extent, the space programs grew out of the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union—one that resulted in powerful missiles that could strike enemy countries from the other side of the earth.

One part patriotism, one part science and exploration, with a healthy dose of flexing, the U.S. and the Soviet Union poured massive amounts of government resources into getting astronauts to the moon. In 1961, the former USSR was the first country to send a person into space, but just seven years later the U.S. put the first astronauts on the moon. The U.S. remains the only country to put humans on the moon, and in fact no one has stepped on the moon in 42 years, as the public lost interest and such massive space programs became financially untenable.

But enough about the moon (moon fans, see NASA). Today’s race is all about driverless cars.

Complete with major competitors and massive amounts of funding, the race to launch the first driverless vehicles is upon us, and spectating has become a real sport.

According to a detailed analysis of patent filings, the automotive industry is leading the driverless cars race, not the tech companies of Silicon Valley, reports Reuters. “The findings illuminate the challenges for both established automakers and Silicon Valley companies as they compete to profit from moving people around in a world that is increasingly congested and concerned about carbon emissions.”

Here, we assess the top contenders worldwide in the Driverless Cars Race.

 

self driving car on road
Google’s self-driving car

The United States:

Here in the States, several big names are competing for the glory of being the first to put driverless vehicles on the road. A few major contenders seem neck and neck: Google, Tesla, and Apple are often in the news with their latest autonomous developments, and all seem likely contenders. As for U.S. companies talking firm dates:

  • Tesla’s famously confident CEO, Elon Musk, told The Wall Street Journal that he expects his company to have fully autonomous vehicles on the market sometime between January 2018 and January 2019.
  • Ford and Google have set 2020 as their autonomous-vehicle launch date, according to Forbes.
  • Chinese tech giant Baidu—often called “the Google of China”—plans to bring autonomous vehicles to the commercial U.S. market by 2018, reports Forbes. Baidu has offices in Silicon Valley, and plans to begin testing their autonomous vehicles in the U.S. soon. The company is hoping for better coordination with the U.S. government in hopes they’ll gain regulatory approval. Baidu’s edge comes from their artificial intelligence research, writes The Wall Street Journal.

China:

Baidu, of course, is a Chinese company, and while their plans for commercial-ready autonomous vehicles seem aimed at the U.S., they also have development plans in China, where they plan to launch self-driving shuttles on a predetermined loop by 2018, reports Forbes.

Baidu driverless car from China
Baidu driverless car (Photo: Wall Street Journal)

Singapore:

NuTonomy, a Singapore-based software company, just secured $3.6 million in financing to make fully autonomous taxis a reality in the city-state, writes Fortune. NuTonomy is making progress: the vehicles passed their first driving test last month. They have a good chance at becoming the first company to operate “level-four” driverless cars, which means no driver is present in the vehicle. For comparison, Fortune writes, Google is currently testing “level-three” cars, which operate autonomously but which have a driver present–just in case. NuTonomy doesn’t have a launch date, and they still need approval from the government for its pilot program, but they hope to soon put thousands of driverless taxis on Singapore’s streets.

Japan:

Toyota leads the race in autonomous-vehicle directed patents, reports Reuters with more than 1,400 patents on autonomous-driving devices. The sheer number of patents can’t predict which automaker will first bring autonomous vehicles to the market though. And, Reuters reports, companies based outside the U.S. are, on a whole, more aggressive with patent filing than U.S. based companies–quantity doesn’t always equal quality.

As for the company itself, Toyota hasn’t offered a projected date for their driverless vehicles. A Toyota spokesman told Reuters that the company, “views a fully self-driving car as a long term goal, but one that must wait for autonomous driving systems that never make a mistake.”

Regulations

Governments across the globe must update regulations to match driverless technology developments–no small feat, especially with how fast developments are being made. “Over the past two years,” Google X director Chris Urmson told Investor’s Business Daily “23 states have introduced 53 pieces of legislation that affect autonomous vehicles, all of which include differ approaches and concepts.” These laws could create problems for companies hoping to get self-driving cars on the roads for consumers, and regulations could even hinder state-to-state travel for self-driving vehicles.

The Department of Transportation is working on “a model policy state regulators and lawmakers could use to craft their own self-driving car regulations. The federal government is aiming to define best practices for operating self-driving cars by the end of July. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will work with states and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators — a group representing state motor-vehicle agencies — to craft a path to consistent autonomous-car policies to avoid a patchwork of state regulations.”

Opting Out of the Race

Some automakers are taking a knee on the driverless cars race. Porsche’s CEO, for instance, recently told a German newspaper, “An iPhone belongs in your pocket, not on the road,” writes Investor’s Business Daily. It seems Porsche is betting their customer base is one that truly loves driving for driving’s sake.

The winner in the race for the first launch of a driverless vehicle remains to be seen. We’ve got our eye on the major competitors from the most likely countries of origin, but we’re not ruling out a dark horse contender, either.

  • Tomas_75

    How do you think the driver-less cars will have an impact on the personal lines auto insurance industry?

    • The Zebra

      It’s tough to say at this point because updated insurance legislation would be needed for insurance companies to determine how they will insure the cars. Since no one is driving, who does the liability fall to in a crash? What about someone hacking into your car and damaging it? There are significant questions that have to be answered before any meaningful determination can be made. Our guess would be that it could cause insurance rates to decrease, but the industry as a whole will be volatile and experience growing pains because driverless cars are so new that insuring them will be tricky until they have forecast data over a few years. Not to mention all of the unforseen issues that will undoubtedly pop up.