For years, tech pundits and prognosticators have been predicting that fully autonomous vehicles are just around the corner. But the road to get there has been bumpier and twistier than many expected, and one reason is because there are so many pieces to the puzzle of electric vehicles that no one can predict exactly what obstacle will arise next.
Can engineering squeeze enough power out of a battery to run massively complex systems for hours at a time? Can procurement find a consistent supplier for the right size of IP66 outdoor enclosures for the optic sensors? Can machine learning be taught to handle challenging road situations that even many drivers don’t do well in? The learning curve is steep, and the consequences of failure can be devastating.
The enticing possibilities of the autonomous vehicle market have inspired a great many entrepreneurs to try their hand at solving these tough problems. Here, we’ll discuss five of the most competitive companies in this challenging and futuristic sector.
If the world of autonomous vehicles has an 800-pound gorilla, it’s Tesla. Several automakers offer models with adaptive cruise control and other “autonomous lite” features, but the Palo Alto tech titan is the only company that currently offers consumer vehicles with a full autopilot feature that runs all major vehicle controls both on the highway and city streets.
That feature, which is currently still in beta, is also still only a “Level 2” autopilot, which means that vehicle operators must still be ready to take the wheel in an emergency. Flamboyant founder Elon Musk hasn’t done the company any favors with his constant overpromising, including the lofty claim that Tesla would be at fully autonomous “Level 5” status by the end of 2021.
Thus, although Tesla is undeniably a market leader in autonomous vehicles, its advantage is far from insurmountable. Other tech companies are nipping at Musk’s heels on autonomous vehicles, and any one of them that achieves a breakthrough could upset the balance of power in the world of self-driving vehicles.
The disruptor to beat might be Rivian, another autonomous electric car manufacturer that employs dozens of former Tesla personnel. Rivian is in the middle of its first big product launch as it brings not one but three fully electric vehicles to market in 2021. With its product lineup of a pickup, an SUV, and a delivery van, Rivian is targeting multiple markets Tesla has relatively little penetration in.
Two of those vehicles, the R1T truck, and R1S SUV, will feature Level 2 autonomous driving systems called Driver+. These will be similar to Tesla’s autopilot features in that they require the driver to pay attention and be ready to take the wheel if necessary. Delivery is set to begin in June, so it won’t be long before we’ve got some notes on how these vehicles actually perform.
Rivian is also notable for the blockbuster deal it signed with Amazon for 100,000 non-autonomous electric delivery vans which it will begin delivering this year. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think Amazon will begin investigating Rivian’s autonomous driving technology and applying it to its own purposes sooner rather than later.
3. Embark Trucks
Trucking is the cornerstone of continental U.S. supply chains, and it’s also an even more complex and high-stakes use case for autonomous vehicle technology. San Francisco-based Embark Trucks is trying to thread that needle, and they’re currently ahead of their competition in this nascent but highly relevant market.
Embark put the first-ever Level 2 autonomous semi-trucks on the road all the way back in 2017, and the company has steadily evolved its software through on-the-ground testing with corporate partners since then. Currently, it’s working with HP to deliver printers in its supervised autonomous trucks, using the data to help fine-tune its offerings to the needs of the 21st century supply chain. Thus, although commercial viability is still a long way off, Embark’s technology is improving steadily and setting a pace for the industry.
3D lidar-sensing technology, which uses laser light pulses to measure the distance and position of objects, is a core technology for most autonomous vehicles (with the notable exception of Teslas). However, it’s been challenging to get the technology into a reliable and mass-producible format thanks to its need for complex and fragile mechanical parts. Enter Lumotive, a business that promises a revolution in lidar capabilities.
Lumotive has developed what they claim is the first solid state lidar device. Solid state lidar eliminates those moving parts and instead uses complex liquid crystal surfaces mounted inside an electrical enclosure to steer a laser beam. Production is scheduled to begin in 2021, so it looks like we’ll soon be able to evaluate this new generation of lidar devices.
Several cities, including San Francisco, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, are in the process of developing pilot programs (no pun intended) for autonomous car services. Cruise, a self-driving vehicle startup that’s actually a division of GM, is among the leaders in this field, along with Google’s Waymo. Currently, the company has over 200 cars testing in San Francisco, with plans to expand into offering a stand-alone taxi service soon.
Cruise just announced the completion of a $2.75 billion funding round, and investors on board include big names like Microsoft and Walmart. In fact, Walmart is going a step further by partnering with Cruise to create a fully autonomous grocery delivery service. Possibly their most exciting deal, though, is going down in Dubai, where Cruise just signed a contract to become the city’s exclusive provider of self-driving taxis through 2029.
Good things often don’t come easy, and that’s certainly true of autonomous vehicles. Automotive tech enthusiasts and investors alike will be eagerly watching the companies we’ve discussed here to see if they fulfill the promise of their high-tech dreams.