Last Updated on August 17, 2020 by Henry John
Try bringing into existence something useful that has never before existed and perhaps you will get a glimpse of what its taking to develop self-driving vehicles.
For decades, several companies and projects have been established with the aim of bringing into existence vehicles that drive themselve autonomously, intelligently and of course, safely with or without passengers and goods in them.
As we turn a new leaf into a new decade, AI enthusiasts like me, gets the feeling that this is certainly the decade for full (level 5) self-driving cars.
And the companies developing self-driving cars are drawn into a race of “who will be the first”, “who will make history”.
They race each other, and we watch history unfold before our eyes.
And as it stands there are two clear leaders, Tesla and Waymo, and the rest are underdogs that shouldn’t be underestimated.
Who are these underdogs that has the potential to surprise everyone and make history or at least take a place in history? What are these companies up to? Puzzles this piece drives to solve, with a list of the Top 10 Self-driving car companies.
As at early January 2020, Waymo’s autonomous cars have driven over 20 million miles on public roads and tens of billion miles through computer simulations.
With Waymo, Google has gone from building search engines to building ‘autonomous car engines’.
Waymo began as a Google self-driving car project in 2009 before it became a stand-alone subsidiary of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) in 2016.
They introduced Waymo One, a full self-driving service that offers commercial robo-taxi in Phoenix, Arizona.
In 2019, the robo-taxi service in Phoenix, has over 600 vehicles ferrying customers. And if you live in Phoenix, you can get a ride in one of Waymo’s self-driving cars by simply downloading the Waymo One app, request for a ride and ‘Waymo comes to you’.
Waymo’s drive as a self-driving car company (for now) is to build the world’s most Experienced Driver, a system called “the Waymo Driver”.
On March 4, 2020, Waymo introduced the 5th generation Waymo Driver, a combination of hardware, software and compute that powers vehicles to safely get people and things where they’re going.
Waymo’s robo-taxi service in phoenix, gives a clue into their drive to develop full self-driving cars.
Will Waymo robo-taxis with full self-driving capabilities move (worldwide) beyond its training ground in Arizona?
For now, Waymo is leading the pack in the development of self-driving vehicles, and in March 2020, Waymo announced a $2.25 billion in outside funding (the first one in its history).
In 2016, Tesla claimed that “all new Telsa cars have the hardware need in the future for full self-driving in almost all circumstances”. Guess all we are waiting for right now is the software part and necessary regulations to get us into full self-driving with Tesla.
Telsa over the years (since the Elon Musk takeover) has established itself as a strong name in the automotive industry especially for electric vehicles.
In January, 2020, Tesla became the first $100 billion publicly listed US carmaker in extended trading. With that, Tesla is already valued more than Ford Motors and General Motors combined.
Yes, you read that right!
When it comes to semi-autonomous vehicle system, Telsa has arguably the most advanced system in the world.
The Tesla Autopilot (its semi-autonomous driving system) enables Tesla cars with the ability to auto navigate and be summoned from parking spaces and garages.
Tesla’s vision for full self-driving cars is to upgrade the base capabilities of Autopilot into offering full self-driving.
There’s always a steady upgrade to Tesla’s Autopilot system, software and hardware wise. And this is making the system get closer to full self-driving capability.
The Tesla Autopilot over the years has been gradually featured with Adaptive Cruise Control, Autosteer, lane departure warning, auto lane changing, smart summon and traffic lights and stop signs recognition among others.
As a company, Tesla epitomize the future of cars, not just for its self-driving drives but for the fact that it’s an all-out electric vehicle company.
Electric Vehicles (EVs) and autonomous vehicles (AVs) are the future of vehicles and at the moment, Tesla seems to be a carmaker from the future.
3. GM Cruise
Cruise is a graduate of the Y-Combinator (a startup accelerator) that was acquired by General Motors in 2016. They commonly go by the name Cruise, and are a company focused on testing and developing autonomous vehicles.
Call them GM Cruise to let the world know that they are owned by General Motors (GM), even though the company received funding from Honda and Softbank.
GM Cruise took a Tesla leaf and has been working exclusively on full self-driving electric vehicles.
They started off 2020 by announcing their plans to build the autonomous Cruise Origin shuttle at GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck factory.
On Cruise Origin, Cruise stated that “it’s not an improvement on the car. It’s what you’d build if there were no cars. It’s not a product you buy; it’s any experience you share”.
Visionary words for a company dedicated to building cars of a visionary world.
GM Cruise are one of the best among the rest as a forward thinking and working self-driving vehicle company.
When it comes to the race for the first, Pony.ai are actively racing Waymo and Tesla to bring full self-driving vehicles to the masses.
Pony.ai is a Chinese self-driving vehicle company with footholds in Beijing and Guangz in China, and in the Silicon Valley in the US.
In 2019, Pony.ai surpassed Baidu to be the most valuable self-driving venture in China.
Their approach to self-driving is similar to that of Waymo as they work on developing full self-driving ridesharing service.
Pony.ai are mostly likely to dominate the self-driving market in third world countries and generally in regions with messy road transportation systems.
Their technology is being developed to be able to handle messy roads and thus, this gives them some edge over self-driving vehicle companies that seems to be built for order. Built for roads like the American roads and roads in first world countries in general.
5. Argo AI
Argo AI is a self-driving technology platform company that is working on delivering a fully integrated self-driving system that can be manufactured at scale.
They are approaching the full self-driving race with a different perspective. Argo AI wants to build a self-driving technology platform that automakers can tap into and turn their vehicles into full autonomous vehicles.
The CEO of Argo AI, Bryan Salesky, founded the company with Peter Rander (former Engineering Lead at Uber) in 2016.
Argo made a strong point when they noted in a 2019 blog post that “self-driving technology is not a winner takes all sprint to the finish line”.
Ford saw a light in Argo AI worth investing over a billion dollars in. More recently, the German automaker, Volkswagen seems to have seen the same light as forward, when they invested $2.6 billion into Argo AI in 2019.
Time will tell if Ford and Volkswagen really saw a light worth billions of dollars in Argo AI.
But for now, as they build in silence, they are one of the leading self-driving car companies in the world.
6. Baidu’s Apollo
Baidu’s Apollo is an open-source autonomous vehicle technology platform.
In September 2019, Baidu was among the three self-driving car companies who won China’s first commercial license for self-driving buses. And in the same month, Baidu launched a self-driving robo-taxi service for the general public in Hunan, China.
The launch of the robo-taxi service came about two years after Google’s Waymo started its self-driving robo-taxi in Arizona.
Perhaps, this highlights the gap between both companies in their Self-Driving pursuits.
Baidu’s announced Apollo at CES 2019. With Apollo, Baidu is approaching full self-driving like Argo AI.
They are building a self-driving technology platform, albeit, it is open-sourced unlike Argo AI.
Baidu at the time of announcing Apollo Enterprise, claimed that “Apollo self-driving technology platform is being used by automakers to deploy level 3 autonomous vehicles”.
The Apollo Enterprise goes beyond offering full self-driving solutions. It also includes an intelligent map data service platform, and DuerOS (Baidu’s voice assistant) for cars.
Partners of Apollo are mostly Chinese domestic automakers, but also feature a lot of big names automakers and tech companies such as Toyota, BMW, Volkswagen, Intel and NVidia.
Apollo project which started in 2017, is expected to reach full autonomy by 2021.
Aurora is a self-driving vehicle company founded by former leaders of the Google (Waymo), Uber and Tesla self-driving projects.
According to Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn Co-founder, “The Aurora team is the most experienced, pioneering and technically renowned in autonomous vehicles. This is the team that will bring autonomous vehicles to the mass market”. Bold claims.
This is a company that has being building its self-driving technology in silence.
As Zoe from the Verge puts it, “Aurora doesn’t do dog and pony shows. It doesn’t trot out its vehicles just to prove they exist or take journalists for test drives to demonstrate that the technology actually works”.
However, that appeal is beginning to change in 2020. Aurora is now opening its doors for the public to have a look at what they have been developing.
Aurora’s approach to full self-driving is similar to Argo AI and Baidu’s Apollo project, they are developing a self-driving technology platform that automakers can tap into and make their vehicles autonomous.
Their platform combines hardware, software and data service that allow vehicles to move people or goods safely and autonomously.
Aurora is backed by Amazon, the ecommerce giant, and so far they are Amazon’s major bet for having a piece of the self-driving pie.
8. Yandex Self Driving Car
Marques Brownlee (one of my favorite tech reviewer) rode in a driverless Taxi at CES 2019. He took a ride in one of Yandex self-driving cars with absolutely no driver at the driver’s seat.
It was inspirational and spoke positivity to those of us waiting on the line for full self-driving cars to roll out.
Yandex Self-driving car is a robo-taxi project of the Russian multinational corporation, Yandex. Their self-driving technology is one of the best in the world today.
They are currently partnering with Hyundai Mobis to develop control systems for level 4 and 5 autonomous vehicles.
Yandex Self-driving car is approaching self-driving like Google’s Waymo. Their aim is to develop self-driving cars that will serve as taxis of the future.
The company, Yandex, has been testing their cars on public roads in different countries, such as in Russia, Israel and the United States.
They may not be in the frontline in the self-driving car race, but they are definitely not too far behind.
Where Google’s Waymo is hitting 20 million miles in January, 2020, Yandex self-driving car hit one million miles on public roads.
Perhaps, like in the search engine market where Google dominates, Yandex seems okay getting a piece of the self-driving pie, as they don’t look positioned for dominance.
But am up for surprises, because right now, Yandex are playing catch up.
Aptiv is a self-driving technology company that is working on developing a commercial autonomous ride-hailing service in mass.
It currently operates an autonomous ride-hailing service in Las Vegas. If you live around Las Vegas and want to experience self-driving firsthand, you can do so with the Lyft App.
Request for a self-driving ride and upon availability, a nearby self-driving car will come around to give you a taste of the future.
So far, Aptiv have provided over 70,000 public passengers self-driving rides within well-defined areas in Las Vegas.
Obviously, the plan is to develop more competent systems and move their autonomous ride-hailing service across oceans.
In 2019, Aptiv opened an autonomous mobility center in Shanghai (the Silicon Valley of China), as it move to gain stronger footing.
Aptiv is one of the best among the rest.
UBER Advanced Technologies Group is an embattled self-driving wing of Uber that is beginning to bound back after being hit legally and technically over the years.
Early this year, Uber announced “starting on January, 24, we will begin exploring a new mode of transportation in Washington DC. Where we bring our self-driving cars to District roads for data collection”.
At that point when Daurelle Burr, Head of Uber Federal Affairs wrote in a Medium posting that Uber “will bring self-driving cars to District roads”, I was expecting it to be for customers’ usage and not for data collection as later stated.
While this show in hindsight how far behind Uber are from developing full self-driving vehicles, it also shows their commitment to get it done, after suffering a series of ill-fated setbacks.
Uber’s self-driving system features an array of overlapping sensors gathering data covering 360 degrees around the vehicles.
It then process this data and combines it with maps into a complete representation of the world around the vehicle, enabling it to navigate around safely and efficiently.
Obviously, Uber are in the race to have a share of the impeding autonomous ride-hailing business.
Will they get their first? I strongly doubt.
But will they get there eventually? Hopefully.
For now, Uber are one of the big names developing self-driving technologies.
Time will tell if they really know what they are doing.
An autonomous vehicle future is inevitable.
Self-driving car companies go literally extra miles to develop these technology.
Who will be first is something we (AI enthusiasts) look out for but for most of these companies, it’s really not about being first. It’s more about getting to the finish line.
Who will dominate the new industry that be born as a result of full self-driving car development and subsequent deployments?
Let’s watch out.