The self-driving car industry is growing up. Valuations of self-driving car companies and private investment in these companies are exploding. Bloomberg reports that private investment in self-driving and connected car companies in the second quarter of 2018 is more than the total private investment in this sector in the prior 4 years combined! Morgan Stanley has raised its valuation of Waymo from 70 billion in 2017 to 175 billion.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, a major restructuring of the auto industry is underway where self-driving car companies are emerging as the pivotal element in the strategies for future mobility. Over the past years, different approaches to integrating self-driving car technology into auto- and mobility companies have been tried, ranging from various types of acquisitions (GM-Cruise, Ford-ArgoAI, Aptiv(prior: Delphi)-Nutonomy, Intel-MobilEye) to partnerships (Bosch/Daimler, Daimler/BMW, Baidu/Apollo) and go-it alone strategies (Waymo, Zoox, Uber and many others).
Leaving aside Waymo, GM may have found a winning formula, which is increasingly copied by its competitors: When it acquired Cruise Automation in 2016, it allowed the new subsidiary to continue to operate in a highly autonomous mode, its growth and speed largely unencumbered by the rest of GM. Successful collaboration with GM around the electric Chevy Bolt brightened the prospects of both companies and initially led to a significant increase in in GM’s stock price (which since then has fizzled out). In 2018 Cruise attracted a 2.25 billion USD investment from Softbank’s Vision fund. Being able to attract outside investment (as well as employees through stock options in Cruise) while having close connections to the resources of the parent company should be an ideal position for Cruise to quickly shift from start-up/development mode to commercialization. At the same time Cruise is insulated from all concerns related to building legacy cars and from the headwinds that classical car companies will have to face from the revolutionary changes in the auto industry. Other auto makers seem to be copying GM’s strategy. Ford has created a self driving division (which includes ArgoAI) and will also be open for outside investment. Volkswagen seems to have been in talks to buy Aurora, but was rebuffed. Daimler who was an early leader in self-driving technology is relying on a partnership with Bosch but is also splitting the company into three separate parts (cars, trucks, mobility (which includes self-driving technology). This has the effect of insulating the less vulnerable parts of the business (trucks and mobility) from potentially dramatic changes in the auto industry. Only Toyota, which has always been late to the self-driving race has chosen a different path by investing 500 billion USD in Uber, which minimizes its ability to leverage the opportunities associated self-driving car technology.
The last 6 months have shown that the auto (and mobility) industry is now finding ways to channel billions of dollars into the commercialization of self-driving car technology. Given the extent of changes, the capital associated with these changes and the increased ability of translating advances in the technology into actual products and services (which don’t have to be full fledged drive-autonomously-anyhwere solutions but can be very targeted) it won’t take several years until we see the first real impact on the streets…
Singapore clearly realizes the potential of autonomous vehicles for revolutionizing road transport. They already have several projects in place – including autonomous golf carts and a Navia shuttle. Now they have set up an oversight committee on Autonomous Road Transport which will support guidance on the research and implementation of self-driving cars. Besides government officials the board includes representatives from MIT, Nissan, Toyota and Continental.
Singapore wants to understand, shape and apply the technology to improve the road infrastructure. It envisions a greener future where a much smaller pool of cars provides urban mobility. In a first step, Singapore will allow testing driverless vehicles on select public roads of its one-north business district starting January of 2015. Of course, stringent safety measures must be in place. Another application of the technology for testing could be driverless buses that operate on fixed routes.
Singapore is the first city that systematically works towards a future with driverless cars. It recognizes that it needs to incorporate driverless technology into its long-term infrastructure plans already today. In addition, becoming a pioneer of this technology could lead to important competitive advantages for this city-state in the future.
Realizing that traditional approaches for Intelligent Transport Systems may be outdated, the Japanese transport ministry has announced an initiative for an ‘autopilot’ driverless system which will be operated on highways. A first demonstration is planned for 2013; the whole system should be operational by 2020.The initiative will start with an expert forum on June 27 consisting of researchers and industry representatives (including Toyota, Honda, Nissan).
The autopilot system will operate within private cars. These cars will be driven manually on standard roads. Once the car reaches the highway, the autopilot can be activated. This will reduce accidents on the highway and reduce traffic jams. Still in the tradition of ITS, the ministry envisions that highways will need to be equipped with technology supporting the autopilot mode. This may include systems for controlling the traffic flow at on-ramps and in traffic jams.
Accelerating the pace of development for driverless technology is an excellent fit for the Japanese industry which already is a world leader in robotics technology.
Driverless technology researchers gathered at the beginning of June for the IEEE Intelligent Vehicles Symposium. With almost 200 presentations from more than 600 authors probably no aspect of this technology was left untouched.
This was not just an academic get-together: many of the papers involved major car makers (BMW, Toyota, Daimler, Renault, Volvo, Opel, Volkswagen, General Motors, Hyundai) or automotive suppliers (Delphi, Bosch).
The conference started with a reportedly captivating keynote presentation by Google’s Chris Urmson. Unfortunately, I have not been able to obtain more detailed information about its content. Please contact me if you were there!! Robert Bertini (Intelligent Transportation Systems Lab) gave another keynote on the environmental issues related to intelligent transportation which took the perspective beyond technical issues towards societal and environmental impacts.
It is hard to pick out the most interesting papers. But Daimler presented a new approach for improving stereo vision using a ‘Stixel’-based approach for object recognition. They claim that they are able to reduce false positives by a factor of 8 over the state of the art while reducing the computational costs by a factor of 10.
China also seems to be moving ahead with driverless technology. Two papers (1, 2) were presented from participants of the annual Chinese driverless vehicle competition (‘ Future Challenge of Intelligent Vehicles’) funded by their National Nature Science Foundation.
More automotive manufacturers are readying themselves for the driverless future: Toyota will display an autonomous version of the Prius at the upcoming 42nd Tokyo Motor Show (Nov 30-Dec 11). Visitors will be able to test-ride the Prius which is equipped with the Toyota AVOS (Automatic Vehicle Operation System). The system can autonomously park itself, drive to the customer when summoned, avoid obstacles. This is not the only autonomous car presented at the show. Kanazawa University, Keio University, the Japan Automobile Research Institute and others also present driverless cars as part of the Smart Mobility City Exhibition.