Whichever approach to building a truly autonomous car is the right one, Tesla’s sense of urgency is helping to quicken the pace of competition in the driverless-car space.
Like Tesla, several legacy automakers are announcing their entry into the driverless-car space with incremental assisted-driving systems. This approach makes sense for them: After all, they already manufacture cars that people can go and buy—something that isn’t true of Apple, Google, or Uber—which means one of the best hopes for legacy carmakers to stay in business is to evolve now rather than attempting to play catchup later (which they may still have to do).
But some legacy companies have gone farther than others. While nearly every major automaker pays lip service to the importance of developing autonomous vehicles, only some have backed up their talk with action. Volvo stands out among the more committed, for instance. In a project Volvo is calling Drive Me, the automaker will put a fleet of 100 driverless cars on the highways in Sweden. (As with tests by Google and Uber on public roads in the United States, humans will sit behind the wheel, ready to take control of the vehicles if needed.) In March 2017, Toyota unveiled its first self-driving car prototype. The car came out of Toyota’s artificial intelligence research institute, which it launched with a $1 billion investment in 2015.
Ford Motor Company has also made its efforts increasingly visible. Ford announced in August 2016 that it plans to be “mass producing vehicles capable of driving fully autonomously” by 2021. Six months later, the automaker announced a $1 billion investment in the software company Argo AI, a software startup specializing in self-driving cars. (“Ford is the majority stakeholder in Argo AI, but we are structured to operate with substantial independence,” Argo AI says.) “This work is easily the most challenging of my career, and it may be the most important, as well,” wrote Chris Brewer, the head of engineering for Ford’s Autonomous Vehicle Development department, in a blog post in March 2016. “Come to think about it, who better to develop a self-driving car than a company that’s been making cars for more than 100 years?”
As with Ford and Argo AI, several other tech firms and automakers are forging partnerships. Chrysler and Google announced in May 2016 that they would team up to make a driverless minivan, while Volvo and Uber announced a partnership in August 2016.
We should expect to see more startups in the self-driving car space in the years to come. One example is Drive.ai, which launched in August 2016 and is creating deep-learning software for driverless cars.
There will be others. Chris Urmson, the longtime head of Google’s driverless car initiative, left the company in August 2016, at a time when the project seemed to be shedding several key players. In December 2016, the technology-focused news website Recode reported that Urmson is starting his own self-driving-cars venture.
Technology history tells us that the first company to build a technology is not always the company that ends up making a windfall. That may well be the case in the realm of autonomous vehicles.
There are many uncertainties in all this, but one thing is clear: The cultural space occupied by the automobile is undergoing rapid, radical transformation. There are sure to be big winners and losers along the way.