Last year, the car industry was abuzz about the move towards autonomous vehicles, largely spurred by decisions made by technology companies such as Google, Tesla, and Uber. Since then, a few car makers have entered the space and even during this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, there was plenty of talk surrounding the next generation of vehicles that wouldn’t require human assistance.
While the phrase “self-driving” gets tossed around a lot, the truth is that not all cars are the same. In fact, four years ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) established five levels of autonomous driving. This is helpful in understanding the capabilities of individual vehicles, but how does it stack up in the industry? A new report from Altimeter Group seeks to provide clarity in the matter, dissecting the developments of 26 automotive makers and 50 technology providers to see which company has a good shot of dominating the market by 2021.
Entitled “The Race to 2021: The State of Autonomous Vehicles and a ‘Who’s Who’ of Industry Drivers,” it’s a two-year study by analyst Brian Solis which indexes the key players in the autonomous industry. In no way is this a final version as he invites feedback to constantly update the report, akin to the “State of the Internet” report produced annually by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers’ partner Mary Meeker.
“2021 is the year auto manufacturers have promised fully autonomous vehicles on the road,” Solis explained. He admits that he doesn’t think we’ll see mass consumer adoption by then, but rather cities and communities will have evolved to adapt to this latest technology shift. Within four years, Solis thinks Level 5 self-driving cars will be in the market, but limited to testing along fixed public transit courses, universities, and inner-city ride/hail services “where infrastructure and pedestrian laws have been adapted for safety.”
He posits that consumers are largely still wary of what autonomous vehicles can do, with concerns around viability, ethics, and trust. “They want to drive a vehicle with semi-autonomous features, and automakers are introducing these features in waves to tame fears and humanize the technologies before fully autonomous vehicle release and adoption is feasible” Solis wrote.
This 93-page report is designed to educate and provide a point-in-time snapshot of where the industry is. As it’s the inaugural edition, Solis begins by introducing the different levels of automation, starting with the traditional driving experience and moving all the way to fully autonomous where drivers are no longer needed. From there, the bulk of the report evaluates the 56 companies that have been evaluated, including manufacturers like Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, John Deere, Tesla, and Volvo; to those that specialize in driverless hardware and software such as the 5G Automotive Association, Apple, Comma.ai, and DeepScale.
Those building accessories such as sensors, mapping sensors and vehicle-to-vehicle communication are also examined. In each instance, the report doesn’t just tell you the players in each area — it provides a synopsis of the latest developments so you know where they stand at that moment, such as what has been developed, any pertinent statements, and more.
The future of cars and the new “Gold Rush”
There’s certainly no shortage as it relates to what the cars of the future will look like and plenty of headlines were made in the past 12 months. Uber is one of the most vocal about moving forward with self-driving cars with its new Carnegie Mellon unit. The on-demand car service brought its vehicles to San Francisco to accelerate testing, but were quickly rebuffed — it then shifted gears (no pun intended) and moved to Arizona where it received a more welcoming reception.
Google has also been at the forefront advancing this technology, having spent at least eight years working on it. In December, the self-driving car project was spun off to become Waymo and is now led by John Krafcik, the former president and chief executive of Hyundai North America. The company recently sued Uber alleging patent infringement of its self-driving car technology.
Other tech companies doing what they do best — innovate — have also been exploring autonomous vehicles in some way, shape, or form, including Apple, Baidu, Lyft, Comma.ai, Mobileye, and, of course, Tesla.
The push forward by these companies has caused a stir in incumbents such as Toyota, GM, Ford, and Honda all eager to avoid feeling they missed out. Recently auto makers have accelerated their development to explore the use of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and finding ways to grant vehicles greater autonomy in a way that ensures drivers and riders are safer and have a better overall experience.
It would be one thing to assume that all companies are at the same level of development, but that’s not really true. Some like Google, Uber, and GM have already begun testing vehicles in various markets while Tesla has had autopilot in vehicles for over a year, although there have been some glitches that may have given some owners pause about using it. Others have simply launched prototypes with over-the-top features like Faraday Future, or opted to improve the vehicle’s intelligence by building better relationships with sensors’ around it to predict accidents and other scenarios. And then there are the concept cars that illustrate the creative thinking from automakers, but may never actually arrive in market.
To beef up its development, incumbents have turned to the tech firms that are impacting their business, electing to either make an investment or acquire them outright, such as what GM did with Cruise Automation in 2016 for $1 billion.
The report describes development of self-driving cars as the new “Gold Rush”, with incumbent automakers pulling resources to accelerate work on production around the technology. Spurred by the likes of Google, Tesla, Uber, and other technology companies, “Detroit and auto capitals around the world were pushed to accelerate self-driving programs to appear innovative and not lose brand equity.”
Be ready because it’s coming
“The race towards self-driving vehicles is as much about technology as it is about city infrastructure and governance,” Solis said. “From lanes and lights, to signs and obstructions, to rules and regulation, [and] government, cities are working with manufacturers to redesign city infrastructure to optimize flow and safety.”
And he’s not wrong because with the latest developments, regulators have been slow to adapt in order to facilitate faster innovation while protecting the safety of the public. While both automakers and tech companies are producing the next generation, it behooves cities, states, and all governmental agencies to look at the coming wave of smart vehicles and find ways to not only provide data to support them, but also ensure that the right laws and regulations are in place. And let’s not forget about other stakeholders such as insurance companies who will be disrupted by the proliferation of autonomous vehicles out on our streets.
Solis calls the next era Automotive 2.0. And while some may consider it to be a cheesy moniker, he thinks quite the opposite. It’s the changing relationship we have with our vehicles and what it means to get from one place to another. Solis opines that vehicles will become commodities that are distinguishable based on not what benefits drivers receive but what accouterments given to passengers.
His report looks at not only companies in the space, but the applications being built. Based on his research, Solis identified five areas of focus: Logistics, industrial, purpose, transportation, and consumer. Within these categories, there are dozens of more in-depth use cases, such as having autonomous vehicles used for cargo, such as Otto which Uber acquired late last year, delivery, commuting, retail, shuttles, mass transit, medical, tourism, military, construction, farming, and more.
As mentioned earlier, “The Race to 2021” is an evolving research effort and next year, the information on here will likely change to reflect the latest developments in the autonomous vehicle space. So while Solis warns that cities, government agencies, communities, and companies should better prepare for the onslaught of self-driving vehicles, his findings may change over time. Some unanswered questions include the impact of security, influence on other areas of transportation, how this will disrupt working professionals, and more.
How well does Solis’ analysis match other experts is also worth watching, such as tempered expectations from Morgan Stanley (subscription required) earlier this month.
“There is no finish line to cross for autonomy,” he explained in his report. “It’s now a matter of when a vehicle requires human intervention or not. Along the way, there will be, and already are, intelligent features that introduce self-driving capabilities to those willing to pay for them. Over time, everyday and professional drivers will come to grips with this new reality, one iteration and innovation at a time. But this renewed perspective will co-exist with traditionalists for the foreseeable future.”
You can read the full report here.