A Sketch of the Autonomous Car Landscape
Bored in my interim period between college graduation and joining Microsoft, I’ve decided to do some writing and attempt to outline the current autonomous car landscape in terms of 8 notable companies. This rapidly growing industry has the potential to revolutionize the world, but with some potential drawbacks. This article is not in any way meant to be a complete analysis, but more of a cursory overview of the landscape for the curious observer.
Companies Creating Autonomous Ground Vehicles
Tesla. The brainchild of “Iron Man” Elon Musk and the front runner of the autonomous driving revolution. While not exactly a startup anymore, Tesla gives an important benchmark to which other autonomous car companies can be compared. In October 2016, Tesla announced the arrival of autopilot for their Model S cars, becoming the first major car company to deliver this feature to consumers.
As of late July 2016, Tesla has become a notable force in the car industry, with a market cap of $33.8B. To give this number some context, Ford has a market cap of $54.6B and Volvo has a market cap of $191.5B.
As of recent, Tesla is in the process of a merger with SolarCity, a leading clean energy company and another product of Musk. However, Tesla’s $2.8B offer has made some people nervous that Musk’s personal interests are going against what is best financially for the companies.
However, Tesla is not perfect. In the past few months, Tesla has had some public relations issues surrounding a prominent accident a vehicle had while on autopilot, killing the driver.
Faraday Future is another popular name thrown around when discussing self-driving cars. They’re the Apple of the autonomous driving sector — UX and design over everything. While much more secretive than Tesla (even their financial backers are a mystery), the company presented their first project to the public, the electric FFZERO1 Concept, at CES 2016. While they’ve stayed quiet about any consumer vehicles, they announced in December 2015 the development of a $1 billion autonomous production plant in Las Vegas, so large scale production is on the way. While there were rumors floating around that FF was secretly owned by Apple, Fortune magazine presented evidence in November 2015 that FF is actually owned by the Chinese technology company LeEco (formerly LeTV).
On a side note, I recommend FF’s blog: http://www.ff.com/futuresight/ — It’s filled with some very interesting interviews.
Otto, a startup based in San Francisco/Palo Alto, hopes to revolutionize the commercial trucking industry with self-driving technology. The company has some serious talent —the founders are 4 ex-Googlers, including the former technical lead of Google’s autonomous car division and the former product lead of Google Maps. The company is aiming to change what is a startling statistic: freight trucks account for 5.6% of driving, but about 9.5% of driving-related deaths. Between a shortage of truck drivers and the importance of trucking (about 70% of all cargo in the US is moved by truck), Otto is working within a market with massive potential.
Cruise is creating self-driving cars out of normal, non-autonomous vehicles. I won’t say much more as they were recently acquired by General Motors in May 2016 for around $1 billion. They are now working on developing a system to turn the Chevy Bolt EV into an autonomous vehicle.
Companies Creating Autonomous Ground Vehicle Software
AdasWorks, based in Budapest, Hungary, is focused on creating a software framework for processing data from multiple autonomous vehicle sensors. The software is hardware agnostic, so it can be incorporated in a variety of vehicles. They essentially provide the machine learning so that the data from sensors can make sense. Founded just about a year ago (July 2015), their most recent round of funding was a $5.6 million Series A in March from a mix of firms.
Mobileye is the only company on this list not founded in the 21st Century (founded in 1999). Mobileye is based in Jerusalem, Israel and publicly traded on the NYSE with a market cap of $9.8B. The company provides vision-based systems for collision prevention. Their flagship product, the Mobileye 5-series is a Bluetooth connected system which warns the user of possible collisions through the user’s smartphone. Mobileye used to provide one of the many sensor systems used by Tesla’s famous Autopilot feature, but on July 26, they announced the end of this relationship with the hope of focusing on a complete driverless car system. Their stock dropped more than 7% after the announcement.
Founded in the garage of the legendary George Hotz (aka “geohot”, the first person to carrier-unlock an iPhone), comma.ai is quite similar to Mobileye. Hotz is a critic of Mobileye, stating in an interview with Bloomberg that “they’re a company that’s behind the times”. He intends to compete directly with Mobileye, telling Elon Musk in the past that he would beat their technology and replace it in Tesla vehicles. Recently, comma released a mobile app, “chffr”, which allows users to use their phone as a dashcam, providing training information to comma. In return, users get “comma points”. There’s no word yet on if users will be able to exchange their “comma points” for anything in the future. In April 2016, Comma raised $3.1 million in seed funding from A16z.
Nauto is another company creating a collision detection system using a camera system and AI. Nauto’s system uses a “smart-cloud” which allows auto-insurers to see how drivers are behaving and how risky their driving is. Also for insurance purposes, Nauto’s system will automatically sense when a crash is about to occur, record the incident, and store the video in the cloud. The company’s ability to determine “good” and “bad” drivers is relatively unique. While not used in autonomous cars at the moment, Nauto hopes to have its systems control self-driving cars in the future. Nauto’s most recent funding was a $12 million Series A in April 2016, led by Playground Global.