The Most Interesting Self-Driving Car Companies
The top 10 companies invested $16bn in 2019 in Self-Driving Car development and continue to invest at least at the same level in 2020. Here’s a round up of what’s going on the most interesting companies in the Self-Driving Car market.
(I got the inspiration for this analysis from the Navigant Leaderboard Grid and the Information’s article on R&D investments. Both are linked below.)
1. Waymo (Alphabet)
Waymo, the self-driving unit of Alphabet Inc. (the parent company of Google) has been working on autonomous cars for more than a decade. Waymo recently announced its vehicles had covered more than 20 million miles on public roads since 2009. Waymo is considered a leader in the race to deploy self-driving vehicles. It has begun offering a limited number of fully automated rides for the public without backup drivers in its cars. One of the main issues holding it back, however, is how it will make money out of self-driving cars. In March it received its first external investment round. It first raised $2.25 billion from a host of investors to scale up autonomous driving operations and only few months later extended up to $3bn. Valuated at 30bn it has extremely interesting alternatives and already an exciting recent track record:
- Launched Waymo One, the world’s first commercial autonomous taxi service in 2019. It’s first available in Chandler, Arizona.
- Opened world’s first factory dedicated to level four autonomous driver integration in Detroit, MI in 2019.
- Teamed up with UPS for automated package delivery in 2020.
- Integrated its next-gen hardware system into the Jaguar I-Pace vehicles and using them for data collection to train machine-learning models in 2020.
2. Cruise with General Motors, Honda, and Softbank
General Motors’ Cruise Automation division was recently given permission to carry passengers and drive its self-driving cars, based on Chevrolet Bolt Evs. This seems like the organization is moving towards a ride-hailing service. It is currently piloting ‘Cruise Anywhere’, a limited service for employees. All this has culminated in the Cruise Origin, its new vision for a totally driverless, emissions-free vehicle. The Origin is both electric and autonomous. It’s meant to be a six-person taxi for ride shares in and around urban areas such as San Francisco. The Origin is powered by a GM-sourced electric motor with the battery pack tucked underneath the passenger compartment. Of the Origin, Cruise CEO Dan Ammann has emphasised, “This is a service you share, not a product you buy.”
Some highlights in Cruise history:
- Founded in 2013
- GM acquires Cruise for +$1bn in 2016
- Honda joins GM Cruise with $2,75bn investment in 2018
- Softbank and Honda invest $1,5bn at $19bn valuation in 2019
- Cruise’s estimate in 2020 values the market size to $8tn consisting of $5tn ride-hailing, $2tn trucking, and $500bn for data insight & in-vehicle experiences
- GM upgrades Super Cruise System to match Tesla’s Autopilot in 2020
- In 2020 Criticises the safety reporting in California, but still receives clearance from the state of California’s Public Utilities Commission to transport passengers in self-driving tests on public highways. This means that it can transport passengers in the first car built to operate without a driver.
- Brags in February 2020 that it has 1.800 employees working on self-driving cars, but already in May has challenges due to covid-19 and has to lay off staff.
- Upgrades SuperCruise to work on city streets instead of select highways only in May 2020
3. Argo AI with Ford and Volkswagen
The VW Group has invested $2.6 billion in capital and assets into the autonomous vehicle start up Argo AI. This forms part of a wider association with the VW Group and Ford around autonomous and electric vehicles, for example expansion to Europe. VW and Ford will be treated as separate customers by Argo AI with some collaboration to help both companies share costs. Volkswagen and Ford will independently integrate Argo AI’s self-driving systems into its own purpose-built vehicles. They are steering away from building an autonomous taxi fleet and focusing instead on getting paid by the mile by customers who will use robot vehicles for multiple purposes, including delivering goods or transporting groups of people in vans.
For those interested in the self-driving car history, Wired published a great story about Argo AI, Ford, Carnegie Mellon, Waymo, and DARPA from Bryan Salesky point of view. In addition, there are brief glimpses into Uber, Volkswagen, and Aurora Innovations.
The Chinese self-driving car companies are aiming to overtake the US-peers and there’s, for example, the world’ largest intelligent transport system in Shanghai. One of the most promising initiatives is the search giant Baidu’s move towards the launch of a commercial robotaxi fleet in China with 40 licenses to test autonomous cars carrying passengers on roads in Beijing. Its self-driving cars have driven the most autonomous miles in the capital, covering 1.8 million miles in 23 Chinese cities. China’s highest level permit, the T4, allows prototypical vehicles to travel on urban roads, tunnels and school zones.
Baidu recently revealed it’s building a self-drive testing facility in Chongqin in a move towards smart city infrastructure. The $7.3M project includes building road infrastructure with embedded sensors and traffic signal control systems. It will be able to host test drives for 100 plus level 4 self-driving cars. There have been some conflicting rumors about Baidu’s restructuring of the self-driving car unit in the end of 2019.
Although not self-driving, Tesla currently offers Autopilot, a suite of advanced driver assistance systems. Already in 2016 the company announced that all Tesla cars being produced now have full self-driving hardware. The Tesla Model 3 has had a driver-facing interior-view camera embedded in its center rear-view mirror to operate as a means of passenger monitoring when the robotaxi fleet takes off. One of the strongest business models for self-driving car companies is to operate a fleet of vehicles in a city where there are lots of riders accessing the service using smartphones, running those vehicles 24/7 and to power them with electricity. This is where Tesla might be hindered; its own business model has centred around selling cars to customers.
Still in May, but we’ve gotten plenty of amazing news from Tesla in 2020:
- Tesla’s former self-driving car computer architect (now at Intel) shares insight about his work in Februrary
- Shared new info on upcoming Autopilot features in March
- Files patent for sourcing self-driving training data from its fleet
- Released video footage of its cars avoiding running over pedestrians in April
- Crossed a major milestone in April when its cars completed three billion miles of driving in the semi-autonomous Autopilot mode
- Claims in April that Tesla Robotaxi technology is ready and the launch depending on the regulatory approval
- In May Tesla CEO Elon Musk brags the value of the ‘full self-driving’ in a Tesla is over $100k and, therefore, Tesla will continue raising the prices
Aptiv, Hyundai and Lyft
Self-driving software company Aptiv and ride-sharing company Lyft are bolstering their joint venture into the autonomous self-driving car market following a pilot project to test a robotaxi service in Las Vegas. So far they’ve given 100,000 paid rides in Aptiv’s self-driving vehicles via the Lyft app. The cars service 3,400 designations in the Vegas area. However, the cars are not yet fully autonomous. Aptiv’s autonomous vehicles still have a human safety driver to take over if necessary and have to be in manual mode in parking lots and hotel pick ups. So far Lyft has received 4.95 out of 5 during vehicle testing in Vegas.
Despite Lyft’s seemingly good progress, Magna ended their the two-year partnership in 2020 and decided to focus on ‘assisted driving technology’. On the other hand, Lyft still touts benefits of self-driving cars, but warns of ‘second order’ effects.
Intel aquired the Israeli computer vision specialist Mobileye in a $16bn deal in 2017. Mobileye has made a self-driving car that only uses cameras — no lidar or radar. According to the Mobileye CEO Amnon Shashua, robotaxis will be available as soon as 2022. It’s worth mentioning that while many others are scaling down expectations, in April 2020 Mobileye renewed the 2022 promise and acquired the smart urban transit startup Moovit for $1bn.
Volkswagen’s approach to Self-Driving has been extremely interesting. First joining Aurora Innovations with Hyundai in 2018, switching to Argo AI with Ford in 2019 at the same time when Amazon joined Aurora Innovations, and finally creating it’s own Volkswagen Autonomy spin off in October 2019.
VW predicts in October 2019 that its standalone self-driving unit will be ‘the world’s best-funded start-up’. Volkswagen Autonomy, or VWAT, plans to bring robot taxis and cargo vans to three continents by 2025.
2018 December: Audi pulls the curtain back on its self-driving car program
2019 July: Amazon moves into Self-Driving Cars with a Bet on Aurora (most likely the reason why Volkswagen wanted out)
Yandex is a Russian technology company that builds intelligent products and services powered by machine learning. It reached an impressive milestone of 2 million self-driving car miles in February 2020.
Toyota Research Institute (TRI)
Toyota started a new $2.8 billion company Toyota Research Institute in 2018 to develop self-driving software. In 2019 Toyota announced it is deepening its relationship with Nvidia, as the automaker, and its research arms in Japan and the U.S., ramps up its autonomous-vehicle development program. Toyota has also invested in Pony.ai and May Mobility.
Pony.ai and Toyota
Following a $400 million investment from Toyota, Pony.ai will pilot test self-driving cars across two cities, Beijing and Shanghai, in China. Until now its autonomous fleet comprises 10 electric Kona sport-utility vehicles made by Hyundai. During the Covid-19 lockdown Pony.ai plans to use autonomous electric vehicles to deliver packages from local e-commerce platform Yamibuy to customers in Irvine, California, which has a population of 200,000. The move marks Pony.ai’s first attempt to deliver goods rather than transporting passengers. Toyota had planned to offer a limited ride-hailing pilot in downtown Tokyo during the 2020 Summer Olympics before the Covid-19 crisis took hold. Like many others Pony.ai rolled out self-driving deliveries during the lockdown.
May Mobility and Toyota
Michigan-based start up May Mobility took a leap forward in its ambitions in the autonomous vehicle market with a $50 million injection of Series B funding from Toyota Motor Corps. The funding will allow May Mobility to expand its current fleet, engineering team and operations. The company currently runs 25 low-speed shuttles between three US cities with a plan to build up to 25 per city. The partnership with Toyota will most likely pair May Mobility’s autonomous vehicle technology with the Toyota’s concept vehicle, the e-Palette. This could be used as a shuttle or for delivering packages to customers. May Mobility’s CEO Edwin Olson, says their aim is not only to be autonomous but also to provide a a better level of service and solve transportation issues.
Zoox has just published a video to showcase its autonomous system by driving around San Francisco in heavy, multi-lane traffic and alongside busy pedestrian streets. The retrofitted Toyota Highlander, with a safety driver at the wheel, overtakes other cars and even manages to drive down the city’s famous winding Lombard Street. Zoox has ambitious plans to build a vertically integrated taxi service, with Zoox engineers designing a vehicle, self-driving software and a ride-hailing network. Zoox has raised hundreds of millions of dollars over the last five years, however, it has struggled in the last two years when its CEO was pushed out and it laid off 100 workers. Coupled with these issues is a recent lawsuit it settled with rival Tesla over trade secret theft. In May 2020 there are even rumors forecasting it’s soon the end of Zoox. However, the development still seems to progress well as we can see an a recent impressive video, where they talk through a 100% autonomous 1-hour-drive from Menlo Park to downtown San Francisco.
Latest rumor in May 2020 is that Amazon would acquire Zoox:
Daimler, BMW, Bosch
The German car manufacturers Daimler and BMW announced a self-driving car joint venture in July 2019. In the plan they promised to employ 1.200 technicians and to have the new automated technology in their vehicles by 2024.
Bosch and Mercededs-Benz launched their pilot project for an app-based ride-hailing service back in December 2019. The self-driving cars, automated Mercedes-Benz S-Class vehicles, are shuttling between sites in the Silicon Valley. The service, which uses an app developed by Daimler Mobility AG, will initially be for a select group of users to shuttle between West San José and downtown. It will be monitored by a safety driver. The progress looked promising so it was a surprise when MB announced that it’s putting self-driving passenger cars on hold and focusing first on self-driving trucks and advanced driver assistance systems.
Back in 2014 Daimler Trucks presented the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025. Daimler was the first to demonstrate the technological opportunities and huge potential that automated trucks have for the economy and society. Testing of the trucks with SAE Level 4 intent technology took place on public roads in Virginia last year.
Online education startup Udacity set out to train a new legion of self-driving car engineers in the end of 2016. Only six months later it had proven so successful that Voyage spin-off was founded in 2017. In September 2019 it raised $31M to bring driverless taxis to communities, total funding amounting to $51M. In May 2020 Voyage announced a partnership with Fiat Chrysler, who will provide them with purpose-built Pacifica minivans.
Aurora Innovations & Amazon
Aurora Innovations has long believed the safest approach to building self-driving technology is by using different sensor modalities — cameras, radar and lidar. Aurora’s acquisition in 2019 of the industry-leading lidar company, Blackmore, confirms this technological stance. Added to this is a $530M investment by Amazon to go towards an engineering team, HR, PR, and operations teams. Aurora’s core product, the Aurora Driver is a combination of software and hardware that can be installed in different types of cars to make them drive autonomously. In 2020 they plan to test drive the cars, most likely specially-designed Chrysler Pacifica minivans, in simulated environments to learn how to respond to unique situations on the roads. So, it’s easy to believe the CEO Chris Urmson’s prediction that in five years there will be hundreds of self-driving cars on the road.
AutoX recently launched an 80,000 square feet operations center in Shanghai, housing tools to operate a vast fleet of 100 self-driving cars. Shanghai authorities granted Auto X approval to launch the self-driving ride-hailing cars in the city’s Jiading district. It will be the first time robotaxis are deployed in Chinese cities on a large scale. Auto X has also set its sights on deploying a robotaxi pilot service in Europe by the end of 2020. Auto X plans to integrate its autonomous drive technology into a brand new electric vehicle which is being developed in Sweden. The company uses lidar but also relies on cameras which it believes has better resolution. The company’s propriety AI algorithms bring it all together.
Apple’s Project Titan, shrouded in typical Apple secrecy, has gone through various incarnations from a complete electric vehicle to a focus on narrower autonomous driving systems and components. With the rehiring of Tesla engineer Doug Field in 2018, there came speculation Apple may once again be moving towards a full car option. Reliable Apple analyst in the APAC region, Ming Chi Kuo, believes Apple is working on a car that will launch between 2023 and 2025. The car could revolutionize the autonomous car market like the iPhone did in 2007. However, numerous staffing changes have beset the project team. Apple cut the autonomous car team by 200 in 2019, relocating some of the team to machine learning. However, there are constant plausible rumors about Apple’s glamorous self-driving car future.
Uber’s self-driving car initiative history is a real-life proof that truth is stranger than fiction. Back in the day in 2015, soon after announcing an advanced technologies center strategic partnership with Carnegie Melon University, Uber hired away dozen’s of CMU’s scientists, leaving one of the world’s top robotics institutions in a crisis. In July 2016 Uber acquired a self-driving truck company Otto founded only seven months ago by ex-Google self-driving car engineer Anthony Lewandowski. As a result, Google sued Uber for stealing trade secrets of its LIDAR designs. After a long litigation process Uber and Waymo settled for $245M in fall 2018. However, Google continued another lawsuit against Lewandowski, who was later on ordered to pay Google $179M and filed for personal bankruptcy in March 2020. As if all this wasn’t enough, Uber’s car was involved for the first recorded case of a pedestrian fatality involving a self-driving car in March 2018. Following the fatal crash, Uber suspended testing of self-driving vehicles. Finally, the Federal investigators of the National Transportation Safety Board split the blame for the fatal crash between the ride-hailing company, the safety driver in the vehicle, the victim, and the state of Arizona in a blistering official report that also took the federal government to task for failing to properly regulate the industry.
In February 2020 Uber was once again permitted to test self-driving cars in California. However, Uber’s autonomous vehicles, Volvo XC90 SUVs, will not pick up passengers operates only two vehicles and only during daylight hours . The new third generation XC90 SUV is built to fit Uber’s self-driving technology at the factory level, not retrofitted like previous versions of the car. Uber and Volvo have built more redundancy into the vehicle. It has a steering wheel and pedals but is designed to ultimately operate without a person at the wheel. There are multiple redundant back up systems around steering, braking and battery power. This should mean the new version of Uber’s self-driving car is safer than it predecessors and, for example, in April 2020 the company claimed it’s AI enables the cars to predict traffic movement in real time. Let’s hope so, because due the heavy losses ($22,7bn in FY2019 and $2,9bn in Q1/2020) the self-driving cars might be the only way to profitability.
Volvo Cars (owned by the Chinese Geely) and Uber presented production vehicle ready for self-driving in summer 2019. Volvo is focused on safety, which might be the best choice considering Uber’s track record on this front. Geely announced in March 2020 that its investing $326M to build satellites for autonomous cars and in May 2020 that it will sell LIDAR-equipped self-driving cars to customers by 2022.
Renault Nissan Mitsubishi launched the giant EZ-Ultimo self-driving concept car in the Paris Motor Show already in 2018 and partnered with Waymo in summer 2019 to bring driverless cars into Japan and France. It’s commenced a public trial of an autonomous, electric and shared on-demand car service in 2019. Their Autonomous Drive progress is nicely described on the group website dedicated on the ‘Mobility of the Future’.
Didi Chuxing self-driving car lab in Silicon Valley, announced 8/2019 that it will start offering free rides in self-driving cars in Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzen in 2020 and other global markets in 2021. Has also a 60% ownership in a joint venture with Volkswagen in Shanghai. Didi Chuxing is already an exciting player on the self-driving car market, but is probably moving directly to the Contender category now that the Softbank led $500M investment is not a rumor anymore.
Methodology — how did I come up with this list?
The race to develop a self-driving car is still wide open. With companies typically keeping their proprietary technologies under wraps, it can be a tough field to assess. For example, he technology development has traditionally been evaluated using the California Department of Motor Vehicles’ annual autonomous vehicle disengagement report, a detailed road testing record of almost all the major driverless car players. More recently, the key players in the industry are preferring to ‘show not tell’, by releasing video footage to showcase their autonomous systems.
I created my list of the most interesting players in the Self-Driving Car Market by utilizing Leaderboard Grid: Automated Driving Vehicles by Navigant Research as a starting point. Next I cross-checked the resulting list of companies with The Information’s Insight on 2019 R&D spend and utilized my own personal knowledge on the subject. Finally, I upgraded the importance of Tesla, Apple, Aurora Innovations, and Didi Chuxing, which resulted in the list of this article.
- CB Insights: “40+ Corporations Working on Autonomous Vehicles”, March 4th, 2020
- Crunchbase: Funding rounds, accessed April 28th, 2020
- Guidehouse Insights: “Leaderboard Grid: Automated Driving Vehicles”, April 8th, 2020 (previously known as Navigant Research)
- The Information: “Money Pit: Self-Driving Cars’ $16 Billion Cash Burn”, February 5th, 2020
- Yahoo! Finance: valuations for publicly traded companies, accessed April 28th, 2020
- In addition, I’ve utilized publicly available information such as websites of news agencies and each company mentioned in this article. These references are included as links above.