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Fun & Games: Who’s Really Winning the Autonomous Car Race?

By: Bridget Clerkin December 13, 2018
Tesla, Waymo, and Cruise are all self-driving car companies with an eye on the biggest market share, and their approaches to gain the majority are vastly different.
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The current business landscape of Silicon Valley may look familiar to fans of Fortnite: a seeming melee of carnage with every firm out for themselves, stopping at nothing to take down any and all rivals.

But the development of autonomous cars is much more akin to a game of Risk, with carefully-plotted moves and countermoves all designed to march an army of self-driving cars across the globe—and no clear end in sight until someone can claim world domination.

Or, at least, the domination of the world of autonomous tech.

Like any gamer worth their salt, each company involved in getting the cars on the road has come to the arena with their own strategy for being the first to mass market, making the game more about the nuance of business than the pure pursuit of technological superiority.

But what’s the thinking behind some of the world’s biggest players in the autonomous car race—and how are those approaches playing out for each?

Waymo

WaymoLogo

The company formerly known as Google’s autonomous car project never met a test it didn’t like. Waymo has way more practice miles under its belt than any other autonomous car competitor, with its last count reaching far into the millions.

Waymo intends to bring its autonomous ride-hail service to several major cities next year.

The point of all this careful experimentation was to create a virtual “driver”—comprised of a suite of sensors, software, and other guidance applications—which could be installed into any other vehicle.

But that concept also highlights Waymo’s weak point: the firm may know computers, but the same can’t be said for cars.

Waymo’s strategy all but requires the firm to partner with automakers in order to move their product forward. In fact the company has done just that, utilizing several contracts to launch a test-rider program in Arizona last year.

True to form, the information the company gathered from that pilot is being used to plan an even more expansive launch, with Waymo intending to bring its autonomous ride-hail service to several major cities next year.

Cruise

CruiseBolt

A true startup Cinderella story, Cruise hit the jackpot when GM purchased it for $1 billion back in 2016.

Since then, the car company been putting all that investment money to work, helping GM build the world’s first ever mass-producible autonomous car. The technique allows the company to start from scratch when it comes to putting together a self-driving ride, rather than retrofit an existing model with sensors and software.

If successful enough, the concept could offer quite a challenge to Waymo’s business plan.

The assembly line is already getting broken in, with GM planning to partner with Honda to create a unique autonomous model soon.

In the meantime, Cruise’s self-driving technology has been installed in a number of electric Chevy Bolts, which GM intends to launch in several major cities in 2019 to offer an autonomous ride-hail service.

On GM’s part, the investment risk has seemed to pan out, with the Cruise division’s estimated values soaring as high as $43 billion this past summer.

Tesla

TeslaShowroom

The Silicon Valley-based boutique manufacturer has quite an affinity for doing things differently. Even the way Tesla sells its cars flies in the face of traditional methods.

So, too, goes the story for Tesla’s favored way of collecting data.

Each Autopilot capable car is plugged into a greater network, with the real-time experiences of each vehicle being logged and learned in real-time with every other connected vehicle

Unlike relying on myriad tests to provide them with information like competitor Waymo, Tesla is a firm believer in crowd sourcing, using the real-world miles logged by its drivers to learn more about its Autopilot system—and help the system learn more about driving.

Each Autopilot capable car is plugged into a greater network, with the real-time experiences of each vehicle being logged and learned in real-time with every other connected vehicle, Tesla CEO Elon Musk once explained.

The company also stands alone in its singular reliance on cameras to navigate its autonomous cars. Every other major company on the market supplements the devices with laser-guided technology—a method Musk has repeatedly rejected.

Still, Tesla has come under fire several times for high-profile deadly collisions involving its Autopilot, and, as of now, the company has not released any plans to launch self-driving fleets.

But with many years still likely separating the total autonomous takeovers of the road, it’s yet to be seen whether the company’s risk to be different will pay off.

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