Each year, Navigant Research evaluates all the companies involved in developing self-driving cars and ranks them according to their performance and marketing strategy. Granted, some of the measurements are subjective, but the combined results provide insight into who is leading and who is following in the race to bring autonomous cars to market.
In the opening paragraph of the 2018 study results, Navigant says, “2017 saw a continuing acceleration of the pace of development in the automated driving sector, as many of the companies involved have shifted from a R&D stance to production engineering. With concerns about driver distraction mounting, automated driving is increasingly seen by many as the best solution to eliminating this dangerous trend on the world’s roadways. The number of automated ride-hailing pilot programs has also increased since it has become increasingly clear that mobility as a service will be the primary means of deploying automated vehicles, particularly in the early years of commercialization.”
Tesla fans will be distressed to learn that it is ranked dead last among the 19 companies in this year’s survey. How can that be? It is common knowledge that Tesla has the latest and greatest self-driving technology and is miles ahead of everyone else, right? Actually, no, says Navigant. It blames the divorce between Tesla and Mobileye for Tesla’s poor showing. “While Tesla has been aggressive in promoting Autopilot, since ending its relationship with Mobileye, the company has struggled to reach the same level of functionality with its in-house developed system.” Ouch.
Apple may be known for cutting edge technology, but it doesn’t actually make any physical products itself, relying on outside suppliers like Foxconn to do the heavy lifting for them. Navigant marks Apple down for its lack of actual manufacturing experience.
The leader at the moment is General Motors, which has moved aggressively over the past 18 months to acquire startups like Cruise Automation and Lyft in its quest to move autonomous driving forward. Last week, GM announced it would begin building modified versions of its Chevy Bolt electric car with no steering wheels or pedals in 2019. Waymo, thanks to its association with Chrysler, is also listed as one of the leaders in the field. Chrysler at least has experience with manufacturing automobiles.
One of the big movers in the group is Baidu, the giant Chinese search engine company that has been tasked by the government to lead China forward into the autonomous car era. It is heavily involved with Aptiv, which brought a self-driving BMW created in cooperation with Lyft to the CES 2018 show last week.
According to a report in the South China Morning Post, Baidu COO Lu Qi was in attendance at the show and told the press that China is rapidly narrowing the US lead in artificial intelligence technology thanks to strong government support. Even Tesla CEO Elon Musk may agree. He tweeted a few days ago to congratulate China’s Alibaba on its AI beating humans in a Stanford reading test. Say what you will about the virtues of a managed economy versus unfettered free market capitalism, but the former does have a way of getting things done.
There’s a lot of informed guesswork involved in the Navigant results. No doubt, Tesla’s many confirmed supporters will find much to disagree with. But the report does offer a glimpse into where self-driving technology is at this moment. Tesla could certainly drag its way closer to the front by the time next year’s report is issued — perhaps if it finally made that LA-to-NYC self-driven trip in a Tesla Model 3.
But strong challenges are being mounted by such traditional car companies as Mercedes, Volkswagen, and Ford. As Tesla’s recent experience with Model 3 production makes clear, it is one thing for a tech company to come up with a killer app; it is quite another thing to put together a production line and make it operate effectively. The jury is still out on who will disrupt the disruptors.