The race for fully self-driving cars has reached a pivotal point

Several events from the last months provide a strong signal that autonomous vehicle technology has led the auto industry to a pivotal point: The first auto makers are adapting their business model for fully self-driving cars and are providing explicit time frames!

Earlier this year GM invested 500 million USD in Lyft, purchased self-driving technology startup Cruise Automation for more than 1 billion USD and announced in July that GM will build its first self-driving cars for use within the Lyft fleet as self-driving taxi. In May BMW announced that they would have a self-driving car on the market within 5 years. Next came Uber, which acquired autonomous truck startup Otto for 680 Million USD and is now beginning field trials of fully self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh. But the key change at Uber is the way that its CEO Kalanick frames the issue. He makes it clear that Uber’s survival depends on being first (or tied for first) in rolling out a self-driving taxi network.

The latest announcement comes from Ford which plans to provide mobility services with fully autonomous self-driving Fords by 2021. This is a major effort: Ford is doubling its development staff in Silicon Valley, aims to have the largest fleet of self-driving car prototypes by the end of this year and will triple the size of this fleet again next year. It has also purchased 3 companies related to autonomous driving technology and has purchased a stake in Velodyne, the leading manufacturer of LIDARs for autonomous driving.

When we started to monitor the development of self-driving car technology in 2009 we expected that this technology would turn into an avalanche that sweeps through the auto industry. There have been many signs over the past years that the avalanche is picking up speed but until now we have been reluctant to claim that it is in full swing because even though the auto industry was continually increasing their activity around self-driving car technology all players had been very reluctant to openly call this a race and to publicly position fully self-driving cars as a key element of their strategy. There was a lot of posturing, many eye-catching public demonstrations of self-driving car prototypes but very little tangible action aimed at turning fully self-driving car prototypes into a real product.

After these recent signals, this situation has changed. It is now clear that auto makers have begun competing in earnest to adapt their business models to the coming wave of fully self-driving cars. No longer is Google the only company which is stepping on the gas; auto industry executives (and Uber) are now openly competing to bring the first self-driving cars on the market. It will come as no surprise to the readers of this blog that the initial business models are not concerned with selling cars but to provide mobility services.

These signals are important in themselves. They heat up the competition and force the rest of the auto industry to decide how to adapt their business model to fully self-driving cars and to explain this strategy to their investors, journalists and analysts. They increase the value of companies in the space and increase the competition for human capital (Google has probably lost between 500 million and 1 billion USD in human capital from the exodus of key members of their self-driving car group in this year (680 mio USD Uber paid for the Otto startup founded early 2016 by 4 Googlers (including Anthony Levandowski), plus Chris Urmson.). They also increase the effort of all parties involved (auto industry, suppliers, regulators, journalists, related industries such as transport & logistics, insurance, health care etc.) to understand the implications of fully self-driving cars which gradually drives away the many misconceptions and more clearly shows risks and opportunities. We are in the middle of a global, distributed innovation process around self-driving cars and driverless mobility where all parties are learning, refining their thinking, changing their vision of the future and adapting their actions accordingly. The avalanche is in full swing now and it will be a tough ride for those who fail to adapt while there is still time…

Cities around the world jump on the self-driving car bandwagon

Autonomous vehicles will have a major impact on urban transportation. Mayors, transportation companies and urban planners are increasingly taking notice. The number of cities which recognize the benefits of self-driving cars and buses increases rapidly. Below is a list of some cities around the world which have launched or are working to launch activities focused on self-driving cars and buses:

San Francisco, Austin, Columbus, Denver, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Portland (Oregon):These seven cities strive to be pioneers in integrating self-driving car technology into their transportation network. Each of these cities has already received a 100.000 USD grant from the US Department of Transportation (Smart City Challenge) to refine their earlier proposals on how to transform their urban transportation systems. In June, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx will award a 50 million USD grant to one of these 7 cities to become the first city to implement self-driving car and related technology into their urban transportation system. San Francisco, for example, has proposed phased plans to deploy autonomous buses and neighborhood shuttles. The city has also gathered pledges of an additional 99 million USD from 40 companies in case it receives the 50 million USD grant.

Milton Keynes, UK: Trials of self-driving pods have already begun in this British city. The electric pods will transport people at low speed between the train station and the city center. Additional UK cities which are experimenting with self-driving car technologies are London (self-driving shuttles, Volvo Drive Me London), Coventry and Bristol.

Singapore: This may be the most active and visionary city with respect to driverless transportation. Several years ago it has launched the Singapore Autonomous Vehicle Initiative, partnered with MIT on future urban mobility and initiated several projects aimed at improving urban transportation systems through self-driving car technology. The city has already set up a testing zone for self-driving cars and is conducting several trials in 2016.

Wageningen / Dutch Province Gelderland (Netherlands): A project with driverless shuttles is already underway. The self-driving Wepods aim to revolutionize public transport and provide a new, cost-effective way to bring public transportation to under-served areas.

Wuhu, China: According to Baidu’s head of self-driving cars, self-driving cars and buses will be introduced into the city of Wuhu over the next five years.

Beverly Hills, USA: The city council of Beverly Hills has just passed a resolution aimed at the long-term adoption of self-driving cars. The resolution starts first activities towards achieving that goal but does not yet commit major resources.

Google prepares for manufacturing of driverless car

Google continues to push for the introduction of their self-driving cars on public roads. After positive statements by NHTSA and overtures from the United Kingdom and Isle of Man to test their cars there, job postings show that Google aims to significantly grow their self-driving car team. The 36 job descriptions below show that Google expands activities on all aspects of their self-driving car, including manufacturing, global sourcing, automotive noise and vibration, electrical engineering etc. It remains unlikely that Google intends to manufacture their cars themselves but the job postings complete the picture that Google wants to build a manufacturing-ready reference design of a fully self-driving car which they can either use for having their cars manufactured by a supplier or which can inform licensing and cooperation discussion with OEMs from the auto industry.

The job postings below were obtained from the Google job search engine on 2016-02-13 with a reusable query. All 36 jobs are for the Self-Driving Car team at Google-X:

  1. Mechanical Global Supply Chain Manager
  2. Mechanical Manufacturing Development Engineer
  3. Manufacturing Process Engineer
  4. Manufacturing Supplier Quality Engineer
  5. PCBA and Final Assembly Global Supply Manager
  6. Automotive NVH (Noise, Vibration, Harshnees), Lead
  7. Manufacturing Test Engineer
  8. Reliability Engineer, Vehicle Test Lead
  9. Reliability Engineer
  10. Product Manager, Vehicle 
  11. Global Commmodity Manager
  12. Industrial Designer
  13. Marketing Manager
  14. Technical Program Manager, Vehicle Safety
  15. Operations Program Manager
  16. Policy Analyst
  17. Head of Real Estate and Workplace Services
  18. Product Manager, Robotics
  19. User Experience Researcher
  20. Mechatronics Engineer
  21. Electrical Engineer
  22. Mechanical Engineer, Lead
  23. Systems Engineer, Motion Control
  24. Systems Engineer, Compute and Display
  25. Reliability Engineer, Lead
  26. Vehicle Systems Engineer
  27. Perception Sensing Systems Engineer
  28. Embedded Software Engineer
  29. Electrical Validation Engineer
  30. Systems Engineer
  31. Radio-Frequency Test Engineer
  32. Researcher/ Robotics Software Engineer
  33. Radio Frequency/High Speed Digital Hardward Design Engineer
  34. Camera Hardware Engineer
  35. Mechanical Engineer, Laser
  36. HMI Displays Hardware Engineering Lead