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Who’s Winning the Driverless Car Race?

It’s time to break out the scorecard

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Since the turn of the decade, driverless cars have been perpetually trapped in the purgatory of almost-here tech. Not anymore. Last week, Uber, Silicon Valley’s most notorious disruptor of municipal order, announced that it would begin letting customers in Pittsburgh hail self-driving cars later this month. The company is billing the effort as a test, and a pair of human engineers will be present in the autonomous cars to monitor the vehicles’ activities and take over in case of a malfunction. But the initiative still marks the first time a major tech company or automaker has granted the average person the ability to ride in a driverless vehicle. (Uber passengers in Pittsburgh will continue to hail cars normally and will be assigned driverless vehicles at random.)

Does Uber’s surprise announcement mean it leapfrogged Google, the company that has invested the most time and money into driverless car research? Not exactly. Determining who’s leading the race to bring self-driving cars to the market is tricky. Some companies, like Apple, are maddeningly secretive about their efforts. Others, like Tesla, have made everyday drivers a part of the development process — but when such a strategy proves fatal, its cutting-edge status is rightfully called into question. Another wrinkle in trying to scoreboard the race: Industry watchers are locked in an ongoing debate about the very definition of “self-driving.”

Given all these factors, we’ve done our best to rank some of the key players in the field based on the progress of their self-driving efforts. The scores take into account a company’s timeline for bringing self-driving cars to consumers, miles driven on public roads, the current sophistication of their technology, and any accidents their vehicles have been involved in. Let’s add ’em up, according to this system:

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Safety
-1 for fender benders
-2 for injury-causing accidents
-3 for fatalities

Consumer Availability
+1 if autonomous car will be available to public in next five years
+2 if autonomous car will be available to public in next two years
+3 if autonomous car will be available to public this year

Public Test Miles Driven
+1 for 0 to 100,000 miles
+2 for 100,000 to 1 million miles
+3 for more than 1 million miles

Technical Prowess
+1 for semiautonomy (like Tesla Autopilot) in use on public roads
+2 for autonomous car with steering wheel/brake pedal in use on public roads
+3 for autonomous car with no steering wheel/brake pedal in use on public roads

Uber

Readiness score: 6

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Ringer illustration

In some ways, Uber is at the head of the pack, with its driverless car soon to be in use by customers in Pittsburgh (+3), shortly after it began testing vehicles on streets in the city (+1). But the company’s cars, which will require human supervision, are less advanced than the ones envisioned by Google and Ford (+2). Uber hopes to have a fully autonomous vehicle on the road by 2021.

General Motors

Readiness score: 5

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

GM has been quieter about its plans than some of its competitors, but that doesn’t mean the automaker isn’t serious about the driverless future. As part of its partnership with Lyft, GM is launching a self-driving taxi service in an American city next year (+2), just like Uber. Currently the company is testing autonomous Chevrolet Bolts in San Francisco and Scottsdale, Arizona, with test drivers and engineers onboard (+2). But there’s no set date for when a driverless vehicle will be sold on a car lot or used in a nationwide ridesharing service. GM hasn’t disclosed how many miles its driverless cars have traveled (+1).

Google

Readiness score: 4

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Ringer illustration

Google has been testing autonomous cars since 2009 and has racked up 1.8 million self-driven miles on public roads (+3), giving it a significant head start over its competitors. Its latest prototypes even lack brake pedals and a steering wheel (+3). All that driving has led to more than two dozen minor collisions, including at least one accident that led to injuries (-2). Despite its progress, the company has yet to formally state when its cars will go on sale or how they’ll be distributed. The search giant might partner with a ridesharing service, sell its software to a traditional automaker, or build its own vehicles. As Google continues to mull its strategy, it risks getting outmaneuvered by aggressive rivals who could capture the public’s imagination first.

Ford

Readiness score: 4

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Ringer illustration

Last week the automaker declared that it would offer fully autonomous cars to the public in 2021 via a ridesharing service (+1), with driverless cars for individual owners expected to be sold later in the decade. Like Google, Ford is developing autonomous cars that don’t have steering wheels or brake pedals, though its current test models still sport those automobile staples (+2). The company is testing its vehicles in Michigan, California, and Arizona, though it won’t disclose how many miles the vehicles have self-driven (+1). With Lyft already partnering with GM and Uber’s autonomous cars being developed by Volvo, it’s unclear who would be operating Ford’s ridesharing service. The automaker has been experimenting with vehicle rental programs, so it’s possible that initiative could be expanded to include autonomous cars.

Tesla

Readiness score: 3

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Ringer illustration

Tesla’s cars are already semiautonomous thanks to its Autopilot mode (+1), which allows newer Model S and Model X vehicles to steer, accelerate, brake, change lanes, and even park. Drivers have logged 130 million miles in Autopilot (+3), collectively giving Tesla a massive amount of driving data to improve its system. (Tesla vehicles can be upgraded via over-the-air software updates, just like your smartphone.) But industry watchers are now concerned that Tesla’s system makes drivers too lax, especially after a car in Autopilot was involved in the first known fatality in a self-driving vehicle in May (-3). Despite the death, Tesla is barreling on with its aggressive rollout. CEO Elon Musk has said that his company will have a fully autonomous vehicle in operation by the end of 2017 (+2), though he thinks it will take longer for regulators to allow it on the road. (Go to Florida, young Elon.)

Apple

Readiness score: 0

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Is Apple really going to make a driverless car? The company has reportedly hired hundreds of engineers to work on the so-called “Project Titan,” but has yet to unveil so much as a prototype (zero), let alone begin testing on public roads (zero). Crumbs of information continue to dribble out of Cupertino, such as the recent appointment of longtime Apple exec Bob Mansfield to oversee the car project. But with so many other companies making their automotive intentions clear, there’s less and less reason to pore over Apple’s cryptic moves (which is, of course, just how the company likes it).

An earlier version of this piece included the graphic for Tesla twice and omitted the graphic for Apple.