Carmakers and AV Startups Are Teaming Up to Bring Driverless Vehicles to the Road

Traditional auto giants are looking to the tech sector to boost their autonomous vehicle development efforts.

A trend is emerging in the pursuit of autonomous vehicles (AVs) that has the potential to bring about big changes to the auto industry. Established carmakers are becoming increasingly active in partnering with—or outright buying—AV startup companies.

A Ford Escape Hybrid equipped with Argo AI autonomous driving technologies. (Image courtesy of Argo AI.)

A Ford Escape Hybrid equipped with Argo AI autonomous driving technologies. (Image courtesy of Argo AI.)

Many companies have taken on the challenge of autonomous driving—only to find that it’s notoriously complex. “Generalized self-driving is a hard problem, as it requires solving a large part of real-world AI,” tweeted Tesla founder Elon Musk, whose own car company is discovering those difficulties firsthand. “Didn’t expect it to be so hard, but the difficulty is obvious in retrospect.”

This has led to a number of collaborations between established vehicle manufacturers and smaller companies specializing in AV. Many of those companies have a strong focus on AI as well.

The list of partnerships is growing seemingly every day. However, here are a few examples that demonstrate how these partnerships are transpiring—and their potential impact on the future of the auto industry.

GM, Honda and Cruise

In 2016, GM bought self-driving startup company Cruise to make the Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicle (EV) fully autonomous. Since then, Honda has also invested in the company.

In 2020 Cruise introduced its custom Origin autonomous rideshare vehicle built on GM’s EV platform. GM designed the vehicle and powertrain, while Honda provided the interior and Cruise the driverless tech and software. The vehicle has no manual driver controls such as pedals or a steering wheel—it’s exclusively autonomous.

The Cruise Origin autonomous rideshare vehicle.

The Cruise Origin autonomous rideshare vehicle.

According to Mohamed El Shenawy, Cruise’s senior vice president of engineering, his company’s partnership with GM gives Cruise an advantage in that it can design an autonomous vehicle from scratch—but with GM-backed scale and cost targets that make the project a viable business.

Toyota, Lyft and

A Toyota vehicle equipped with autonomous driving technology. Image courtesy of Toyota.

A Toyota vehicle equipped with autonomous driving technology. Image courtesy of Toyota.

Toyota acquired Lyft’s autonomous driving division in 2021—but that wasn’t the first AV acquisition by the world’s largest carmaker. Toyota has also been investing in and working with startup, and the two companies are collaborating on a self-driving test program on public roads in China. On top of that, the Japanese auto giant has also invested in other autonomous technology companies through its Woven Planet subsidiary. These include Carmera, a map and data provider for AVs; Momenta, which uses deep learning systems to analyze vehicle sensory data; and Ridecell, which is developing a platform to connect vehicle fleets and automate workflows.

Toyota has been working on its own two self-driving software products, Chauffeur and Guardian; the latter seems to be an advanced driver assistance system that is similar to Tesla’s Autopilot.

Hyundai and Aptiv

Motional’s IONIQ 5 robotaxi. Image courtesy of Hyundai.

Motional’s IONIQ 5 robotaxi. Image courtesy of Hyundai.

South Korean carmaker Hyundai and Aptiv launched a joint venture named Motional in 2020. The initiative will leverage Hyundai’s vehicle design, engineering and manufacturing capabilities with Aptiv’s autonomous driving technologies. Hyundai has also received support from the South Korean government for electric and autonomous vehicle development.

In 2021 Motional unveiled its first commercial autonomous robotaxi, based on Hyundai’s all-electric IONIQ 5. The vehicle is equipped with more than 30 sensors, comprised of cameras, radars and LiDAR, that provide 360-degree perception, high-resolution images and long-range detection of objects. That data will be processed by Motional’s driverless technology, which uses machine learning systems to enable the robotaxi to safely navigate in challenging and complex driving situations. In addition, should the vehicle encounter an unusual situation such as flooding or construction, a Motional operator will be able to connect to and remotely assist the vehicle, providing it with a different route to follow.

The vehicle will be rolled out for public use in 2023 through an agreement with Lyft. The two companies have been operating a small fleet of AVs in Las Vegas since 2018, which has had a driver behind the wheel for safety and technical reasons. But starting in 2023, the service will be fully driverless.

Geely and Waymo

Geely, which is Volvo’s parent company, has teamed up with Waymo to develop autonomous rideshare vehicles. Waymo is also Volvo’s exclusive Level 4 autonomous drive technology (as defined by SAE International). The AV company will provide its Waymo Driver autonomous driving technology, which will be used in an all-new EV platform designed by Geely’s Swedish AV subsidiary Zeekr. The vehicle will be transportation as a service (TaaS) optimized.

The vehicle is being designed at the carmaker’s technology center in Sweden. Eventually, it will be deployed as part of the Waymo One robotaxi fleet in the U.S., where it will join other vehicles such as the Chrysler Pacifica minivan and Jaguar I-PACE (which are also in the testing phase).

Ford, Volkswagen and Argo AI

First test of the autonomous Volkswagen ID. Buzz vehicle on public roads. Video courtesy of Volkswagen.

Ford and Volkswagen announced in 2019 a partnership to collaborate on electric and autonomous vehicle technologies. Since then, they’ve added Argo AI, a Ford-backed AV technology developer.

The tech startup’s autonomous tech platform has been installed in Ford Escape Hybrid SUVs in the U.S. and Volkswagen ID. Buzz vans in Europe. Argo AI’s platform includes software, hardware, high-definition maps and back-end support. The vehicles are equipped with LiDAR, radar and camera sensors.

Building on this partnership, Ford and Argo AI will roll out their Escape vehicles through an agreement with Lyft. Vehicles are expected to hit the road in Austin and Miami later in 2022, expanding to other locations in 2023.

Daimler and Apex.AI

Daimler subsidiary Freightliner’s Inspiration autonomous truck. Image courtesy of Daimler.

Daimler subsidiary Freightliner’s Inspiration autonomous truck. Image courtesy of Daimler.

These new partnerships aren’t limited to just consumer vehicles. Daimler, one of the largest commercial vehicle manufacturers in the world, has made a strategic minority investment in Apex.AI to further develop its autonomous truck concept. The startup’s Apex.OS software suite, which has earned ISO 26262 ASIL-D automotive software safety certification, will serve as the platform for the autonomous driving apps that would operate the vehicle. According to Apex.AI, its Apex.OS software development kit enables software developers to create safe, reliable, real-time autonomous driving applications with reduced development time.

Daimler is aiming for SAE Level 4 (highly automated) autonomous trucks.

Traditional Automakers Prove They’re Not Dinosaurs

Around the globe auto giants are facing increasing regulatory and consumer pressure to incorporate electric and autonomous driving technologies into their products. These companies are responding by partnering strategically with AV technology development startups.

They’re often bringing ridesharing companies into the fold as well. Partnering with companies such as Lyft brings a twofold benefit. The technologies can be stress-tested in real-world settings—and can help to normalize self-driving cars for skeptical consumers who may be reluctant to trust a vehicle with no driver.

What about Tesla, though? That company could be the exception that proves the new rule. The EV manufacturer is both a carmaker and a tech startup (including AI) under one roof. Other auto companies don’t have the in-house capabilities that Tesla does—so they’re going out and getting them from outside specialist companies.

This approach makes sense: it leaves the vehicle design to companies that already have extensive experience making cars and leaves the autonomous driving to the companies that focus on that component. “Through our strategic partnership with Hyundai Motor Group and Aptiv, we have unparalleled automotive and software expertise across our entire vehicle development process,” said Karl Iagnemma, president and CEO of Motional, in a press release. “This deep collaboration enables us to manufacture a robotaxi that’s both highly safe and reliable, and is cost-optimized for global production.”

The day when you can summon a driverless vehicle through your rideshare app seems to be close at hand. And should those vehicles prove to be successful, eventually you could have one of your own parked in your driveway.