Apple is going to face tough competition in the self-driving car space; here's how the rivals stack up

In level 5 autonomous vehicles, the cars are robotic taxis, only requiring passengers to feed in their destinations, and the steering wheel is optional.

There have been a spate of recent announcements related to self driving cars. Tim Cook has confirmed that Apple is working on automation technologies and a self driving car. General Motors has completed the production of 130 self-driven electronic cars. Waymo has announced that it will be retiring its Firefly line of vehicles and will instead be focusing on integrating its technologies with offerings from third-party manufacturers. The future for mobility is clearly electric and automated, but when and how will we get there?


The Society of Automotive Engineers classifies autonomous cars into five levels (PDF). Level 0 is any intelligent assistance that prompts the driver, but there is no automation involved. Level 1 requires a driver to hand over partial control to the car. Here the driver can control the steering while the car controls the speed while cruising, or the driver can control the speed while the car parks itself. The driver is required to keep his hands on the wheels all the time. Level 2 autonomous cars require the driver to intervene at any time in case the car messes up.


Level 3 is eyes-off-the-road automation, where the vehicle is mostly autonomous but requires intervention as specified by the manufacturer. Most contemporary autonomous vehicles are Level 3. Level 4 requires intervention only in some situations, such as traffic jams or extreme weather. In level 5 autonomous vehicles, the cars are robotic taxis and the steering wheel is optional. Users only have to interact with the car to feed in the destination and the vehicles does the rest of the work on its own.


Automotive car systems use a number of technologies, including LASER, LIDAR, computer vision and neural networks. The neural networks need to be trained in thousands of hours of real world driving to gain the experience necessary to navigate tricky situations on their own. There is a lot of processing involved, which means chip manufacturers such as NVIDIA and Intel both have an interest in the self driving car market. Delphi, MobilEye, and Waymo are among the most prominent suppliers of automated car technologies. MobilEye, which separated from Tesla over differences, has been acquired by Intel.

An autonomous car from Delphi drives on Treasure Island in preparation for a cross-country trip from San Francisco to New York City in San Francisco, Image: Reuters/ Stephen Lam

An autonomous car from Delphi drives on Treasure Island in preparation for a cross-country trip from San Francisco to New York City in San Francisco, Image: Reuters

Apart from technology companies, the makers of automobiles themselves are gearing up to introduce self driving car technologies. There are two approaches that companies have taken for the introduction. Some, such as Tesla, incrementally introduce software that increasingly automate a vehicle, moving from Level 2 towards Level 5 autonomous vehicles. Others, such as BMW have committed to directly introduce Level 5 autonomous vehicles in the market without making the consumers go through the transition phases.

A roof mounted camera and radar system is shown on Uber's Ford Fusion self driving car during a demonstration of self-driving automotive technology in Pittsburgh. Image Credit: Reuters

A roof mounted camera and radar system is shown on Uber's Ford Fusion self driving car during a demonstration of self-driving automotive technology in Pittsburgh. Image Credit: Reuters

BMW: BMW plans to be one of the first manufacturers to debut a level 5 autonomous vehicle as early as 2021. According to the car maker, the company is on track to roll out Level 5 fully autonomous cars by 2021. BMW is already collecting high definition mapping data through a partnership with MobilEye.

Ford: Ford also plans to have fleets of fully autonomous vehicles by 2021. However, safety is the major concern here and Ford has indicated that it is not in any kind of race to be the first to have Level 5 self driving cars on the road. However, like Waymo, Ford is committed to getting to Level 5 without a stepping stone approach, where drivers incrementally need to reduce control of vehicles. Ford has announced plans to invest in US-based Argo AI, founded by former staffers at autonomous vehicle teams of Uber and Google.

Mercedez-Benz: Mercedes-Benz demonstrated its technological prowess at autonomous vehicle technologies by autonomously driving an S-Class for 100 kilometres in 2013. Uber has signed a deal with Daimler AG, the maker of Mercedes-Benz vehicles, to include autonomous cars from Mercedes in its lineup. The deal is in tune with Mercedes-Benz' ambitions of combining a pay per minute model along with its autonomous vehicles.

The dashboard of the Volkswagen ID concept

The dashboard of the Volkswagen ID concept

Volkswagen: Volkswagen has indicated that it has plans to introduce a fully autonomous electric vehicle by 2025. The most likely candidate is the Volkswagen I.D. concept showcased in 2016. The vehicle is a modern interpretation of the iconic Type 2, better known as the "Hippie Wagon". The concept showcases a steering wheel that slides into the dashboard when the self driving mode is engaged.

Toyota: As the deal between MobilEye and BMW shows, voluminous amounts of data is required to make self driving cars safe. Toyota, Stanford and MIT, along with others, are developing a blockchain based solution that will allow the sharing of critical data between self driving car companies and component manufacturers, allowing for safer autonomous vehicles. Toyota has announced a $1 billion investment in artificial intelligence and robotics.


General Motors: General Motors has started testing autonomous cars based on its Bolt electric vehicle in Michigan. Initial tests are expected to be conducted within the GM facility, but there are plans to test the vehicles in Detroit.

Volvo: Volvo is one of the manufacturers who are aggressive about automated vehicles. Towards the end of 2016, Volvo started testing its own autonomous vehicles in Gothenburg, Sweden. Volvo will be collecting the much highly prized data for supporting its self driving car initiatives during these trials. Along with Daimler, Scania and DAF, Volvo was one of the manufactures that participated in the European Truck Platooning challenge, that saw six convoys of automated trucks move across Europe.


While both Travis Kalanick and Sundar Pichai have indicated that self driving cars are a long way away from coming into India, local manufacturers are developing the technologies necessary to introduce autonomous vehicles in India. Maruti Suzuki, Tata Motors and Mahindra are some of the companies working on autonomous vehicle technologies. IITs in India are developing the technologies needed to allow self driving cars to tackle Indian roads. Tata Motors has demonstrated a Range Rover Sport variant that can overtake slower moving cars.

Considering the many subsystems that make up a self driving car, the technologies for autonomous vehicles may already be making it to India in bits and pieces.

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