15 of the Most Important Autonomous Car Programs

Major automakers are getting ready to produce autonomous cars. Some are predicting full autonomy as soon as 2021.
  • Never in the history of the automotive industry has a technology promised as much change as the autonomous car. If it’s successful, drivers of the future may not know what it is to turn a steering wheel or step on an accelerator pedal.

    And because it offers such potential for change, the concept of the self-driving car holds appeal for virtually every automaker. No one wants to be left behind, and that includes the Tier One and Tier Two automotive suppliers.

    In the following slides, we offer a snapshot of the leaders in the autonomous car race. From extravagant self-driving concept cars, like the Volkswagen’s Sedric, to the nuts and bolts solutions of software makers like NuTonomy, here’s a peek at some of the most notable efforts in the autonomous car arena.

  • Earlier this year, Navigant Research published its Autonomous Driving Systems Leaderboard, based on criteria that included technology, manufacturing and business considerations. Navigant gave Ford, GM and Renault-Nissan, respectively, the top three spots. Waymo (previously known as the Google self-driving car project) received the highest score in the technology area. (Image source: Navigant Research)

  • Earlier this year, Volkswagen Group debuted Sedric, the self-driving car. A concept car developed from scratch for SAE Level 5 (fully autonomous in every scenario) autonomous driving, Sedric is all about intelligence.

    A press release said that “Sedric will drive the children to school and then take their parents to the office, look independently for a parking space, collect shopping that has been ordered, pick up a visitor from the station and a son from sports training – all at the touch of a button – with voice control or a smartphone app … ” Sedric also includes a two-part swivel door that extends to the roof for easy access, and safe, covered wheels. Volkswagen premiered the car in Shanghai, China in April, but has said little about the technology behind it. (Image source: Volkswagen Group)

  • Ford Motor Co. is one of the leaders in autonomous vehicle technology. The company has been testing self-driving Ford Fusions near its headquarters in Dearborn, MI, for more than a year. In 2016, former-CEO Mark Fields made it clear the company is not settling for half-measures in its effort and is going straight to full autonomy by 2021.

    “That means there’s going to be no steering wheel,” Fields said. “There’s not going to be a gas pedal. There’s not going to be a brake pedal and, of course, a driver is not going to be required.” (Image source: Ford Motor Co.)

  • General Motors is another leader in autonomous car development. In 2016, the company announced an investment in Cruise Automation, a maker of autonomous vehicle control systems.

    Last week, it invested again, this time in the Silicon Valley-based company, Nauto, which focuses on artificial intelligence for self-driving cars. The giant automaker currently is testing more than 300 self-driving Bolt EVs in Detroit, San Francisco, and Scottsdale, AZ. (Image source: General Motors)

  • In 2015, Mercedes-Benz grabbed headlines with the rollout of one of glitziest self-driving vehicles to date. The F 015, as it’s known, employs six radar sensors -- long-range radar in the front and back, combined with short-range radar sensors at the vehicle corners. A stereo vision camera also examines the road ahead, measuring the distances to objects that might get in the way of the vehicle.

    Unlike competitors, however, the F 015 employs no rotating Lidar (light + radar) sensors on its roof. Mercedes-Benz engineers said they consider Lidar too expensive and visually unappealing, at least for this high profile application. The concept vehicle – complete with swiveling lounge seats and large touch screens, is targeted for the 2030 time frame. (Image source: Mercedes-Benz)

  • In 2015, Waymo LLC scored an industry first in 2015 by giving a lone blind man a ride through the suburbs of Austin, TX, in its Firefly vehicle, using only sensors and software as his chauffeur. The ride represented the culmination of two million miles of real-world driving by the company’s autonomous test vehicles. In June, Waymo retired its fleet of pod-shaped Firely cars. (Image source: Waymo, LLC)

  • Earlier this year, Waymo LLC invited residents of Phoenix, AZ, to be part of its “early rider program,” which calls for hundreds of self-driving vehicles to be made available to families and commuters. In a statement on its website, Waymo said the goal of its new program is “to give participants access to our fleet every day, at any time, to go anywhere within an area that’s about twice the size of San Francisco.”

    The company announced in December that it was partnering with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) to outfit 100 hybrid Pacificas with its autonomous driving technology. Under the partnership, FCA engineers integrate Waymo’s technology into the electrical architecture of the Pacificas. Earlier this year, it added 500 self-driving Pacificas to its fleet, bringing its total to 600. (Image source: Waymo, LLC)

  • In March, MIT-spinoff NuTonomy announced it would integrate its self-driving software and sensor systems into the new Peugeot 3008 SUV for road-testing in Singapore later this year. NuTonomy said that the ultimate goal of the partnership is to deploy thousands of fully autonomous cars in cities worldwide. (Image source: NuTonomy)

  • Later this year, Nissan will roll out ProPilot, a hands-on-the-wheel technology that paves the way for vehicle autonomy. ProPilot reportedly “reduces the hassle of stop-and-go driving” by helping control acceleration, braking and steering during single-lane highway driving.

    The technology uses a forward-facing camera, forward-facing radar, sensors and an electronic control module to maintain the vehicle’s speed or to help maintain a gap between it and the preceding vehicle.

    Although ProPilot provides a steering assist, the driver’s hands must remain on the wheel, as determined by a torque steering sensor. The technology will be featured in the 2018 Nissan Leaf. Plans are also for it to be launched in ten Renault-Nissan models by 2020. (Image source: Nissan)

  • BMW Group, Intel, Delphi, and Mobileye announced earlier this year that they are teaming up to produce a fleet of about 40 autonomous BMW vehicles by the second half of this year.

    BMW will be responsible for driving control and dynamics, as well as evaluation of functional safety. Delphi will build on its self-driving platform, while Intel develops high-performance computing elements spanning from the vehicle to the data center. And Mobileye will contribute its proprietary EyeQ5 high-performance computer vision processor. The EyeQ5 will be responsible for interpreting the 360-degree surround view sensors.

    BMW hopes to use the experience to introduce a fully self-driving car called iNext by 2021. (Image source: BMW)

  • In 2016, Volvo announced it was joining forces with the ride-sharing company, Uber, to develop next-generation autonomous cars. The deal calls for Volvo to manufacture the cars and for Uber to purchase them.

    The base autonomous vehicle will be developed atop Volvo’s modular Scalable Product Architecture (SPA), which is currently used on Volvo’s XC90 SUV, as well as its X90 and V90 vehicles.

    Uber, which has been stockpiling robotics talent for a couple of years, will work with Volvo engineers on the development of the autonomous vehicles. (Image source: Volvo Cars)

  • Last year, Delphi Automotive partnered with Mobileye in an effort to collaborate on a self-driving platform, and to provide sensors and software for driverless vehicles. In 2015, Delphi incorporated its driverless platform on a vehicle called Roadrunner, which traveled in automated fashion on a nine-day, 3,400-mile journey from San Francisco to New York City.

    The vehicle was equipped with six long-range radars, four short-range radars, three vision-based cameras, six Lidars, intelligent software algorithms, and Delphi’s Advanced Drive Assistance System. (Image source: Delphi Automotive)

  • Toyota Motor Corp. is working on a two-pronged approach that allows it to deploy lower-level automated features for today’s cars, while it continues long-range self-driving development for the more-distant future. Under the approach, an automated system called Guardian will make driving safer today by stepping in when drivers make an error.

    Meanwhile, a separate system known as Chauffeur will serve as the Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous solution in the future. Toyota’s approach differs from those of some automakers that want to go directly to L4 and L5.

    “Toyota is saying that full autonomy is not the only way to leverage this technology,” Toyota engineer Michael James told Design News earlier this year. “We should be deploying it earlier, only stepping in at those times when the human is making a mistake.” (Image source: Toyota)

  • Initially offered on the Model S electric sedan in 2014, Tesla’s Autopilot system includes eight surround cameras, 12 ultrasonic sensors, forward-facing radar, and an Nvidia Drive PX 2 GPU for computation. Tesla claimed that the second version of the company’s hardware allowed full SAE Level 5 autonomous driving.

    An accident in 2016, however, led one supplier – Mobileye – to end its partnership with Tesla, in part due to disagreements over how the technology was deployed. (Image source: Tesla)

  • Let’s be clear: The photo shown here is not the autonomous Apple car. However, Bloomberg News reported earlier this year that a Lexus 450h SUV emerged from an Apple facility in the Silicon Valley, decked out with such sensors as a Velodyne 64-channel Lidar, two radars, and a series of cameras.

    Apple is still in the autonomous race, and because of its notable wealth and technical acumen, it has to be considered a factor. In an interview, Apple CEO Tim Cook didn’t discourage talk of its autonomous efforts, saying, “We see it as the mother of all AI projects.” (Image source: Lexus)

 

Also see:

10 Automotive Ideas That Didn't Pan Out

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The Big, Hidden Questions of Connected Cars

The 15 Worst-Designed Cars in Automotive History

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Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 33 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and auto.

 

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