5 Companies Racing to Build the First Autonomous Car
Autonomous cars have been in the news off and on for the last five years, for both positive and negative reasons. One thing remains the same, no matter the connotation of the story — it seems like everyone is racing to be the first company to build a marketable autonomous car.
How have automotive manufacturing technologies changed in recent years to allow for the creation of fully autonomous cars, and who is leading the pack in the race to get the first fully autonomous car on the market?
6 Levels of Autonomy
First, how do we classify a fully autonomous car? When it comes to vehicles, there are six levels of autonomy.
- Level 0 — no autonomy: Most cars on the market today are level 0 in terms of autonomy. There is no autopilot, and the car doesn’t move without human intervention.
- Level 1 — driver assistance: In some newer cars, the car can take over either the steering or the accelerator and brake pedals, but never both at the same time. The driver still has to keep their hands on the wheel at all times.
- Level 2 — partial automation: The driver still needs to pay attention, but can take their hands off the wheel for short stretches of time. However, the driver may need to take control of the vehicle occasionally.
- Level 3 — conditional automation: Your car takes over most driving responsibilities, but the driver must retake control under certain conditions. Most automakers are trying to skip this level entirely, due to liability issues.
- Level 4 — high automation: The human pilot doesn’t need to drive the car, but the vehicle has the option to ask for driver assistance if it encounters a situation it is not programmed to handle.
- Level 5 — full automation: No steering wheel required. Level 5 cars will be designed to never need human intervention, and may not even come equipped with anything to cede human control if necessary.
Right now, most cars that offer any sort of autonomy fall under level 2. Level 5 would be equivalent to the JohnnyCab from Total Recall or Will Smith’s self-driving car from I, Robot.
Advances in Technology
Moving to a fully autonomous vehicle requires a lot of technological advances that, until now, were out of reach for most automotive manufacturers.
Cloud-based processing, for example, enables autonomous cars to learn about traffic situations and obstacles without having to experience them. The AI programmed into these cars can take the experiences of other cars in the same area and integrate them into its behavioral patterns.
Liquid silicone rubber, or LSR, has been a part of the automotive industry for most of the last 65 years. In spite of its apparent age, LSR is proving invaluable for the implementation of autonomous cars. While it has a variety of applications, it is primarily used in proximity sensors for autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles. Experts estimate the auto industry will build more than 1.26 billion of these LSR sensors by 2025.
Advances in processing and manufacturing are helping make these self-driving cars lighter, more fuel-efficient — and, most importantly, more affordable. You can’t change the world by preventing car accidents if only the top 1 percent can afford your cars, after all.
Detroit vs. Silicon Valley
While Tesla is probably the manufacturer most people associate with autonomous cars, they’re not the ones leading the pack when it comes to getting a marketable self-driving car onto the road in the near future.
Ford is at the head of the pack, followed closely by GM, the Renault-Nissan Alliance, Daimler and the Volkswagen Group. Tesla has dropped out of the leaders’ group, though it is still a contender in the field.
Ford is planning to have a fleet of driverless vehicles for use in ride-sharing complete by 2021. Recently, they invested more than a billion dollars in an AI startup company that will likely be creating the programming for their autonomous cars.
Similarly, GM is working with ride-sharing company Lyft to create a fleet of self-driving vehicles, though there is no information about when this fleet will be ready.
Some of the biggest automakers in the world are all vying to be the first company to get a fully autonomous car out on our nation’s roads. While Ford is currently in the lead, there’s no telling what the next few years will bring.