Google X (now X, under the Alphabet holding company) has led one of the most high-profile autonomous vehicle programs, with its own website and a highly-visible testing fleet of quirky prototypes. Last September, Google hired ex-Hyundai and TrueCar exec John Krafcik to lead the program, which could indicate that the project is heading towards commercialization. This year, testing has expanded beyond Mountain View and Austin to Kirkland, Washington in February (wet, rainy conditions), and Phoenix, Arizona in April (high temperature, dusty conditions). Google has sent mixed signals about whether it will manufacture its own vehicles. It’s still unclear whether the company will ultimately pair with automotive OEMs ormanufacture its own cars for the mass market. However, there have been instances in which the company has floated the possibility of manufacturing its own cars. The company expects to have a finished product by 2020.
Town Hall of Paris
Could miniature high-speed catamarans on urban waterways be the future of city transit? The answer to that question might seem to be a very obvious no. But a new plan for Paris has nonetheless pushed such an improbable mobility option closer to becoming a reality.
The SeaBubble is the latest vehicle design from French inventor and yachtsman Alain Thébault, who’s also co-creator of the world’s fastest sailing boat. A four-person hydrofoil that looks like a Smart car on stilts or a Fiat 500 crossed with an ape, the SeaBubble would ply its trade on the Seine (making its current name somewhat inappropriate). Initially the craft would come with a driver, but the SeaBubble could ultimately be made autonomous, running fixed routes along the river without the need for any human intervention.
Hyperloop Technologies / Hyperloop Transportation Technologies
A series of low-pressure tubes hundreds of miles long in which levitating capsules ferry passengers back and forth inside. If you remember what those old capsules looked like at your bank drive-thru, where you slotted your deposit slips into a pneumatic tube system to get to the teller inside, you’ll have a rough concept of how a Hyperloop works. Musk’s ultimate goal is to build a 400-mile-long Hyperloop between San Francisco and Los Angeles, which will transport commuters in just 35 minutes.
General Motors has made waves in 2016 with a series of aggressive moves within the tech sphere. In January, the company bought up Sidecar‘s assets and invested $500M into Lyft, announcing plans to develop an on-demand network of self-driving cars. As mentioned above, March also saw GM’s landmark acquisition of autonomous tech startup Cruise Automation. Separately, GM has also been developing its own semi-autonomous technology in -ouse, with its Super Cruise technology slated to come to market on high-end Cadillac models in 2017. The Cruise acquisitions is unrelated to this product launch, however; GM has said that the Cruise acquisition would have “no impact” on its Super Cruise launch.
Honda has received approval from California to test autonomous vehicles on public streets (with restrictions on the number of vehicles and the testing methods). Like Apple, the automaker is also using the GoMentum Station proving ground, with 2,100 acres of testing area for its self-driving fleet. Honda also introduced semi-autonomous ADAS (advanced-driver assistance systems) options on its entry-level Civic, offering lane-keeping, automatic braking, and adaptive cruise control functionality. These features are also available on luxury models (offered by brands like Tesla, BMW, etc.), but are notable on a vehicle with a $20,440 base price.
Rumors of an autonomous Apple electric vehicle continue to circulate, though the company has yet to make any public announcements. Dubbed project “Titan,” Apple’s team is said to have grown to over 1,000 employees, largely poached from Tesla, Carnegie Mellon, Volkswagen, and Nvidia, among other sources. Late in 2015, reports pointed towards a goal of producing the cars by 2020, with a 2019 release date for their first electric vehicle (without autonomous features). However, the project appears to suffered setbacks in the first months of 2016, with the departure of its head Steve Zadesky and a rumored hiring freeze.
Audi has revealed a number of autonomous vehicle prototypes derived from their A7- and RS7 models, including consumer-oriented test vehicles. Audi aims to commercialize their “Audi Piloted Driving” in their next-gen flagship A8, which will allow the A8 to park itself and drive autonomously up to 37 mph. Under widely-used NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) definitions, this would qualify either as Level 2 or Level 3 Automation, depending on the Audi model’s final level of capability. The luxury brand operates under the umbrella of the Volkswagen Group, so developments within the division could have broader implications going forward. Audi is part of the German consortium — including Daimler and BMW — that bought Nokia’s HERE high-definition mapping assets for $3.1B.
Bosch, one of the world’s largest automotive suppliers, has responded to an increase in demand by dedicating more than 2,000 engineers to driver-assistance systems. The company counts Google, Tesla, and Porsche as clients, and has managed to outfit two Tesla vehicles to make them fully autonomous (at a steep price). Bosch is also partnering with GPS maker TomTom for the mapping data necessary for this endeavor. The company has agreed with the projection that 2020 will see driverless cars in action, at least on highways. In an April 2016 interview, a Bosch marketing director reiterated the company’s commitment not just to the automation of vehicles, but connectivity and electric vehicles as well. It also recently considered taking a stake in the HERE mapping company.
Delphi, a large automotive parts supplier headquartered in the UK, has created a network of software and sensors that can be outfitted into existing car models to make them autonomous. Last April, an Audi SQ5 outfitted with Delphi technology drove itself 3,000 miles across the US, doing 99% of the driving by itself. In January 2016, Delphi showed off a new autonomous driving concept at CES. The concept’s human-machine interface attempts to address the stepping-stone stage before full (or Level 4) automation is ready. The car is designed to encourage consumers to trust that the car can drive itself, while still keeping drivers vigilant so they can take the wheel if necessary. Delphi has also partnered with the VC-backed company Quanergy to deploy low-cost LiDAR systems.
In April 2014, the Chinese search giant Baidu partnered with BMW to release a semi-autonomous prototype by the end of 2015. The partners tested their technologies on highways in China, a mark that the New York Times recently profiled as fertile ground for autonomous development. The partnership bore fruit in December 2015 as a modified 3-Series BMW drove an 18.6-mile route around Beijing. BMW has also been active thus far in 2016, showing off anautonomous i8 concept at CES and announcing an aggressive strategy to promote electrification and automation in its vehicles under the banner BMW iNEXT. BMW is also part of the group that bought Nokia’s HERE mapping assets for $3.1B.