Driverless Cars - The Race to Level 5 Autonomous Vehicles
Colin Payne posted on August 16, 2017 |
Much like the infamous flying car, people have been dreaming of cars that can do the driving for them for nearly a century.

While their aerial brethren are still largely mired in the conceptual stage, the technology to put self-driving cars on the road is already here. Of course, there are still questions of legislation, liability and ethics to consider, but almost every major automotive company currently has a self-driving car either being tested on the road or in the works.

Meanwhile, many companies outside the automotive industry are now either producing or partnering with more experienced to make autonomous vehicles a reality. With so many players in the game, producing so many different vehicles, we wanted to take a look at who is doing what and how far along they are.

Cars with autonomous capabilities are currently ranked on a level system established by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). The levels range from 0 to 5, with Level 0 being no automation at all and Level 5 being completely autonomous in all conditions.

Summary table of the SAE's levels of vehicle automation. (Image courtesy of SAE International/J3016.)
Summary table of the SAE's levels of vehicle automation. (Image courtesy of SAE International/J3016.)
 The race to production-ready Level 5 vehicles is heating up, but it’s far from over.

 

Apple

While computer giant Apple won’t say for sure whether it’s planning to manufacture its own cars, it definitely has its fingers deep in the autonomous technology pie. Apple CEO Tim Cook recently told Bloomberg that the company is working on the kinds of “autonomous systems” used in self-driving cars, but hasn’t made up its mind exactly what the company will do from a product standpoint.


Baidu

(Image courtesy of Baidu.)
(Image courtesy of Baidu.)
Chinese tech firm Baidu and its Baidu Intelligent Driving Group US are working to create an autonomous car. The company’s Autonomous Driving Unit started research into autonomous driving technology in 2014 and began successful road tests in a variety of complex driving scenarios just a year later. Since then, more than 50 companies including Ford, Daimler, Nvidia and Microsoft have come on board to join its open-source Apollo self-driving car platform. 

 

BMW

(Image courtesy of BMW.)
BMW's Vision Next 100 concept car. (Image courtesy of BMW.)
Despite the fact that the head of BMW recently said the company will never produce a car that can’t be operated by a human, the company is still aiming to be a world leader in autonomous vehicles. BMW is currently producing cars with Level 2 driver assistance, but the company is working with Intel and its newly acquired self-driving hardware and systems subsidiary Mobileye with the lofty goal of having a Level 5 autonomous car on the road by 2020.

BMW was previously working in partnership with Baidu, but the arrangement fell apart for reasons that are still unclear.


Fiat-Chrysler

The Portal. (Image courtesy of Fiat-Chrysler.)
The Chrysler Portal. (Image courtesy of Fiat-Chrysler.)
In April of 2016, Fiat-Chrysler began a partnership with Google and it’s Waymo project to create a fleet of 100 self-driving Pacifica minivans that will be tested this year on the streets of Arizona, California and Michigan. Along with this partnership venture, the company announced plans in January to build its futuristic Portal semi-autonomous minivan. The company has stated that it could begin producing the Level 3 Portal as early as 2019.


Ford

Autonomous Ford Fusion. (Image courtesy of Ford Motor Company.)
Autonomous Ford Fusion. (Image courtesy of Ford Motor Company.)
According to the company, Ford was the first automaker in Detroit to start testing Level 5 autonomous vehicles. Ford is continuing to test self-driving cars and develop technologies through investments and partnerships with companies like Velodyne, SAIPS, Nirenberg Neuroscience and Civil Maps. Most recently, the company spent $1 billion on an AI start-up for a virtual driver system. Ford expects to expand its test fleet of autonomous Fusion hybrid sedans to 90 by 2018, with plans to produce a self-driving car with Level 4 autonomy by 2021.


General Motors/Lyft

Autonomous Chevy Bolt. (Image courtesy of General Motors.)
Autonomous Chevy Bolt. (Image courtesy of General Motors.)
Elsewhere in Detroit, General Motors is working with ride-sharing service, Lyft to get a test fleet of thousands of self-driving cars on the road by 2018. According to Fortune, this will be the largest such test of fully autonomous cars by any major automaker before 2020. Lyft will test the fleet of autonomous electric Chevy Bolts as part of its ride sharing service in various states. GM hasn’t yet announced if or when it might make its autonomous vehicle available to the public. Lyft recently started its own self-driving division known as Level 5, with the goal of creating an open self-driving system car manufacturers could plug into. The company is also working closely with Google’s Waymo and Jaguar-Land Rover.


Google

(Image courtesy of Google.)
(Image courtesy of Google.)
Originally dubbed the Google Self-driving Car Project and now called Waymo, the Internet search giant’s autonomous vehicles have traveled more than 3 million miles to date. In addition, the company has been working with Fiat-Chrysler on launching a test fleet of 100 autonomous Pacifica minivans and running an early rider program as a trial for its own Waymo self-driving car.


Honda

Autonomous Acura RLX. (Image courtesy of Honda.)
Autonomous Acura RLX. (Image courtesy of Honda.)
Honda is planning to have Level 3 autonomous cars available for freeway driving by 2020, with Level 4 cars on the market by 2025. The company is already working on a concept of an Acura RLX with autonomous Level 3 freeway driving technology, in addition to developing its own AI technology and discussing a partnership with Google’s Waymo project.


Hyundai

(Image courtesy of Hyundai.)
(Image courtesy of Hyundai.)
Hyundai recently unveiled an autonomous version of its IONIQ sedan that’s capable of Level 4 autonomy. While the car is still a concept, Hyundai has plans to bring a self-driving car to the highways by 2020 and to city streets by 2030. The company is reportedly planning on doing a lot of heavy lifting to get there, with an investment of about $1.7 billion and 3,000 employees into for its own self-driving car program. 


Kia

(Image courtesy of Kia.)
(Image courtesy of Kia.)
KIA launched its Drive Wise brand at the beginning of last year, with goal of manufacturing self-driving cars by 2030. The company was aiming to fast-track its R&D by investing $2 billion by 2018 and, like Hyundai, it received a license for autonomous vehicle testing on public roads in Nevada. As with many of the other companies on this list Kia has been leveraging its autonomous vehicle program to develop lower level technologies, including lane keeping and automatic emergency braking.

 

Mazda

While Mazda’s current cars, like the CX-9, come equipped with the latest autonomous technologies, like blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, the company has explicitly stated that it has no plans to develop a fully autonomous car. Instead, Mazda plans to focus on developing autonomous technologies that make driving easier and safer, without taking the driver out of the equation.


Mercedes-Benz

(Image courtesy of Mercedes-Benz.)
The F 015. (Image courtesy of Mercedes-Benz.)
Thirty years ago, Mercedes-Benz managed to build an experimental van that could steer, brake and accelerate all by itself. While they were an early leader, the German automaker is now neck-and-neck with a range of other companies in the race to build the best autonomous vehicles. In 2015, the company launched the world’s first self-driving concept truck, along with its F 015 research car. And for years, its cars have had a semi-autonomous feature like Tesla’s Autopilot. Now, it has partnered with German industrial supplier Bosch with the goal of providing a fully-autonomous taxi service for its customers within three years, though it’s been hesitant to commit to a specific launch date.

 

Nissan

(Image courtesy of Nissan.)
(Image courtesy of Nissan.)
Nissan is taking the self-driving car revolution head-on. Earlier this year the company revealed a new version of its popular Leaf EV with the company’s new ProPilot autonomous technology. According to Nissan, ProPilot will allow for single-lane autonomous operation on the highway, which includes acceleration, braking and steering under normal highway conditions. Along with partner Renault, Nissan is aiming to release a fully autonomous car within the next 10 years.


Tesla

(Image courtesy of Tesla.)
(Image courtesy of Tesla.)
Every Tesla car now has some level of autonomous operation since the release of the company’s second-generation Autopilot hardware earlier this year. That hardware has the capacity for full, Level 5 autonomous operation, but it will be about two years before the company has the software capacity to make the cars autonomous in any conditions. In terms of progress towards this goal, Musk announced in April he expects Tesla’s cars to be able to go from a parking lot in California to a parking lot in New York without the driver touching controls at any point—by December 2017.


Toyota

(Image courtesy of Toyota.)
(Image courtesy of Toyota.)
Toyota has partnered with computing company Nvidia and its Drive PX supercomputer in an effort to boost its autonomous car technology. Toyota is currently working on what it calls its “Guardian” system of sensors and AI that will allow it to create intelligent cars that automatically help avoid crashes. The company dedicated a $1 billion Silicon Valley research unit to working on the technology, which could be deployed in its Lexus line and higher-end Toyota models by 2019. That division is simultaneously working on a more advanced fully autonomous system called “Chauffeur” that will likely be ready to go at some point in the 2020s. However, it’s worth noting that the company’s head of R&D, Gill Pratt said at CES this year that he thinks self-driving cars are still a long way off.


Volkswagen

The I.D. (Image courtesy of Volkswagen.)
The I.D. (Image courtesy of Volkswagen.)
Earlier this year, Volkswagen Group announced Sedric, a Level 5, fully autonomous concept car with no projected timeline for production. Last year, the company released its I.D electric vehicle (EV) concept, set to go on sale in 2020 as standard EV, with plans to release a version by 2025 with an “I.D. Pilot” fully autonomous driving mode. Despite these lofty ambitions, the company is currently offering only standard autonomous features in its vehicles (including its Porsche and Audi brands) like adaptive cruise control, self-parking and, in the case of some Audi models, a Traffic Jam Assist feature.


Volvo/Uber

(Image courtesy of Volvo.)
(Image courtesy of Volvo.)
Volvo has plans to offer buyers fully autonomous self-driving cars by 2021 and the Swedish carmaker already has some wheels on the ground towards that goal. The company is currently recruiting people to test a fleet of autonomous hybrid XC90s in its hometown of Gothenburg, as part of its Drive Me project, and has joined with ride-sharing giant Uber in a $300 million joint venture on autonomous vehicles. Volvo is providing the vehicles, while Uber adds its own self-driving tech. Uber’s test projects to date in San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Arizona have been surrounded by controversy due to accidents and regulatory violations. At the same time, its research is going strong, and the company actually plans to release a network of autonomous flying cars as soon as 2020


So, who do you think will win the race to Level 5? Comment below.

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