7 companies steering the self-driving car craze

self-driving car autonomous technology Google, Apple, Uber
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A range of companies, both big and small, are chasing the self-driving car market.

In 2009, the first photos started to trickle out of a Toyota Prius outfitted with a bizarre-looking metal contraption on the roof cruising the highways around Silicon Valley. The concept seemed far-fetched at the time, but Google’s early self-driving car went on to blaze a trail for the current crush of competitors seeking to commercialize the world’s first fully autonomous vehicle.

Automakers such as Ford, Nissan and Tesla are investing in R&D, staffing up on software and artificial intelligence, and signing off on new partnerships intended to accelerate the race. Just look at General Motors' $500 million investment in Lyft, launch of a new mobility-focused subsidiary called Maven and $600 million acquisition of self-driving tech startup Cruise Automation. 

As automotive companies introduce technologies to bridge the gap to full automation — such as lane assistance features and autopilot modes — they 
often enlist third-party suppliers or technical experts in manufacturing light detection and ranging (LiDAR), radar components and other sensors. In the meantime, a range of electronics and internet companies is testing the waters as the underlying robotics and software technologies crucial for self-driving cars evolve.

"In the near future, sensing algorithms will achieve super-human performance," one recent Stanford report predicted, reiterating estimates that mainstream adoption likely will start to ramp up by 2020.

A primary question facing the field of autonomous vehicles is how many contenders can remain on the track. Deep-pocketed tech companies from Apple, Uber and Google parent Alphabet to Samsung, IBM and Intel are all circling the space, although big-names such as Apple publicly have vacillated on whether it makes sense to build cars in house or license the core technology from another provider.

While test versions of the cars are already legally (or illegally) on the road in several states and countries around the world, the environmental stakes of mass adoption are high. There is a divide over whether the technology will encourage broader adoption of electric vehicles and reduce emissions by improving efficiency, or if an awkward coexistence with combustion-engine cars or a heavier dependence on personal self-driving cars ultimately could make things worse.

As the Stanford self-driving research team noted, the answers to those questions are likely to have ripple effects well beyond personal cars, changing the transportation equation for commercial logistics as well.

"The adoption of self-driving capabilities won’t be limited to personal transportation," the report noted. "We will see self-driving and remotely controlled delivery vehicles, flying vehicles and trucks."

Wondering who's ahead of the pack on autonomous vehicle technology? Here's a rundown of the companies beyond the big automakers to watch closely:

Apple

Is building a smartphone really that different from building a car? Yes, the automotive industry argued as Apple ramped up its autonomous vehicle division over the last several years. Executives from the consumer electronics manufacturer have even spoken with major automakers such as Volkswagen and BMW about technology licensing.

Still, that’s not stopping the technology giant from rolling out its latest in-house prototypes on public roads. Just last month, Apple debuted a Lexus SUV outfitted with its version of a self-driving car system in California.

The move attracted even more attention than it might have otherwise, as the last year has been tumultuous for the company's automotive pursuits. After a change in leadership at the group known internally as "Project Titan," Bloomberg reports that Apple is focused first and foremost on software for self-driving cars, putting a full-blown iCar on the back burner for now.

Waymo

It might not be a household name yet, but Waymo is the automotive division of Google's parent company Alphabet.

As part of the search giant's expansion into hardware for industries from energy to health care, Google has nurtured a secretive self-driving car division for the better part of a decade.

The company uses a mix of custom and off-the-shelf sensing and navigation technologies and reported that its cars have logged 2.5 million miles on the road. Most recently, Waymo launched an "early riders" program offering free public trials in Phoenix.

Uber

Most recently, Uber's self-driving car program has been in the news because of Google. Waymo sued the ridesharing giant earlier this year, accusing the then-head of Uber's Pittsburgh-based Advanced Technology Group of stealing the plans for the company's LiDAR system when he left Google to start a competing company in early 2016. That company, self-driving truck startup Otto, was acquired by Uber for a reported $680 million late last year.

With the legal issues outstanding, Auto News reported a shakeup in leadership that could affect the evolution of Uber's autonomous technologies. How the conflict plays out will help determine the competitive landscape in the market for shared rides by self-driving car, which is also a point of interest for Lyft and a range of automakers.

Samsung

Outside of Silicon Valley, too, large tech firms such as IntelIBM and Nvidia are circling the market for autonomous vehicles, as well as ancillary software and hardware components.

Just this week, another big electronics player, Samsung, got the go-ahead to test its autonomous systems using Hyundai vehicles on South Korean roads. Early news reports suggest that Samsung is providing the sensors and machine learning systems for the vehicles, with plans to "develop algorithms, sensors and computer modules that will make a self-driving car that is reliable even in the worst weather," a spokesperson told The Guardian.

Given that Samsung, Apple and Google all also manufacture and sell smartphones, one perspective is that the domain of self-driving cars is quickly becoming a new battle in the front for the future of consumer electronics — albeit a particularly big device with lots of safety challenges.

Baidu

While Samsung tests out its autonomous vehicles in its home country of South Korea, another Asia-based tech giant is busy honing its own offerings in the space. Chinese tech conglomerate Baidu has been investing in autonomous technology since at least 2015, when the company tested fully autonomous vehicles in Beijing. Since then, Baidu also has secured the requisite approvals to experiment with cars in California.

What sort of sales offering ultimately might emerge from the R&D efforts became a bit more clear this spring, when the company announced that its internal self-driving car project, Apollo, is pursuing a central operating system to power autonomous vehicles. The company aims to have the cars on public roads in urban environments by July and is targeting 2020 to roll out systems functional on the open road.

[Learn more about autonomous vehicles at VERGE 17 in Santa Clara, California, Sept. 19-21.]

Velodyne LiDAR

Of all the industrial and part supply companies chasing the market for self-driving cars — among them Delphi and Autoliv — one company founded in the 1980s just outside of Silicon Valley has carved out a niche as a go-to provider of off-the-shelf LiDAR systems for the kind of multi-directional sensing needed to operate vehicles without a driver.

Velodyne LiDAR, one of three divisions of a parent company that started in the audio and sound industry called Velodyne, has been relied upon to date by Waymo, Tesla and Uber, although some companies (such as Waymo) are also venturing into their own LiDAR systems in a bid to bring down costs of the component, which can run up to $75,000.

Proterra

In the realm of startups pursuing the self-driving car space, one venture capital-backed company is thinking big. Like the size of a bus big.

Silicon Valley-based Proterra is pursuing the market for electric and self-driving buses, opening a window into the potential market for heavy duty autonomous vehicles first cracked by Uber acquisition Otto's self-driving 18-wheelers.

Although electrifying buses has been Proterra's primary focus — a tall order given range anxiety and concerns about batteries powerful enough to power large vehicles — the startup also recently announced plans for a Reno, Nevada, initiative "aimed at developing the algorithms required to launch self-driving buses in a commercial setting," Business Insider reported.

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