The ever-developing autonomous car industry was in for a major
shakeup Tuesday as Ford Motor Company
announced that, alongside Chinese search engine Baidu
, it will be investing a combined $150 million in Velodyne Lidar
Inc., a maker of light sensor technology.
Lidar will use the new cash to improve its sensors, which bounce
light off objects to determine location and shape. In addition to
its stake in Lidar, Ford is doubling the size of its Silicon Valley
lab in an effort to expedite the development of its self-driving
Ford's latest move in the autonomous vehicle market comes as a
reminder that both automakers and tech companies are rapidly
developing this new technology, and consumer-level options will be
available to the public sooner than some might think.
Today we'll take a look at the current state of the industry to
determine when drivers can expect to be taking their hands off the
wheel and what brands will be leading the way when they do.
Defining Key Terms
Before we really dive in to the companies involved in this
technology, we need to get on the same page about what it is that
we are talking about here. Technically speaking, "self-driving" and
"autonomous" mean different things and can cause some confusion
when talking about the development of these cars.
A good place to start is the National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration's (NHTSA) system of defining
. The NHTSA has a 5-tier system that categorizes vehicles from
Level 0 (No-Automation) to Level 4 (Full Self-Driving
Typically when we talk about "self-driving" cars, we're talking
about Level 3 vehicles. In fact, the NHTSA cites Alphabet Inc's
automated car program as an example of a Level 3 vehicle. Tesla's
Autopilot falls somewhere in between Level 2 and 3.
The word "autonomous" is used to describe cars that can control
absolutely every condition during the entire duration of the trip.
These cars start the journey, navigate, execute turns, and park-all
without any intervention from the driver.
Self-driving cars are nearly available for widespread public
purchase, while fully autonomous vehicles will still take some time
to develop and release.
As I mentioned before, Alphabet and Tesla are both working on
self-driving technology and promise to be leaders in the market. In
some capacity, Alphabet/Google has been working on its self-driving
car for many years, and its fleet of data-collecting vehicles have
racked up millions of miles already. In May, Alphabet
announced a partnership
with Fiat Chrysler
to develop 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans to be used as test
On the other hand, Tesla actually has a self-driving product
available right now. In October of 2015, Tesla released a software
update that enabled its Autopilot feature, which basically
functions as a "hands-off" version of cruise control.
With Autopilot on
, Tesla vehicles can change lanes, brake, and detect other objects
without help from the driver.
Tesla also made automation one of the primary focuses of its new
"Master Plan." Elon Musk and the company hope to use Tesla's
technology in buses and will continue to develop the Autopilot
feature, which they claim will eventually be 10 times safer than
regular driving (also read:
Tesla Unveils Second Master Plan
Throughout both the automotive and technology industries, nearly
every major company seems to have some sort of self-driving vehicle
research and development underway.
On Tuesday, Volkswagen's
Audi brand announced the introduction of its new
"vehicle-to-infrastructure" or "V-to-I" technology, which will
allow its cars to "communicate" with traffic lights. Interaction
with traffic-related structures is an important part of driving
automation, and the new V-to-I technology is an important
introduction to the market for Audi.
has had a foot in the self-driving car door for several years, but
it recently turned up the intensity of its program with a few major
purchases. In March, the U.S. automaker bought Cruise, a developer
of self-driving car software, for $1 billion, and GM also
invested $500 million
in ride-hailing service Lyft back in January.
Ride-hailing services look to be a big factor in the industry,
as Uber has also made major moves in this area. Back in May, Uber
started testing several of its own uniquely designed Ford Fusions,
and the company has partnered with Carnegie Melon University to
advance its self-driving technology (also read:
Forget Lawsuits, Uber Drivers' Days Are
Partnerships and alliances also seem to be the standard right
now. A team of MobilEye
, and BMW
announced in May
, with all three companies promising to use each other's'
technology to work on self-driving cars.
, which has relations with Microsoft
, has said its ready to ship its own self-driving cars as soon as
regulatory approvals come through, which could be as soon as 2017
And finally, tech behemoth Apple
is also working on its own autonomous car project. We don't know
much about Apple's plans, but we do know that the company
greenlighted a 1,000 person team, led by former Ford engineer Steve
Zadesky, to work on a top-secret car project. Apple is keeping the
details of its car closely guarded, but we do know that it's called
" and could be modeled around a minivan.
With all of these companies making major investments in
self-driving car technology, the actual products are not that far
out. People are already using software that enables them to take
their hands off the wheel while going full-speed on the highway,
and it won't be long until every step of the trip is handled by the
The only major roadblock right now is regulatory approval.
Entities like the NHTSA and other federal agencies are in the
process of figuring out what to do with self-driving cars from a
legal standpoint, but the government has been mostly supportive of
the technology to this point.
If I was a betting man, I'd guess that the major automakers will
have their own lines of self-driving cars out by 2018, with
automated driving becoming a standard feature of new cars by
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