The Self-Driving Car: What Is It? When Will It Happen? Plans of Top 11 Global Automakers

Sep 02, 2019

A company by company examination of the top car makers public investment and statements by their top executives makes it clear that most car companies are betting that artificial intelligence utilized in self-driving will be inevitable, and they’re all jumping in with investment and initiatives.   

Written by Jon Walker (Last updated 5 / 14 / 2019)   

With billions of dollars in R&D and acquisitions, there’s plenty of fodder for media hype in machine learning, but there haven’t been many concerted efforts to bring together the facts and answer fundamental questions, such as:   

What do companies like Ford, GM, BMW and others have as their self-driving car timelines?   

What have the major automakers invested in their self-driving initiatives, in terms of internal investment and acquisitions?   

In this article, we set out to collect the facts and CEO quotes to determine the self-driving timelines of the world’s 11 largest automakers. All businesses and industries will be impacted by the impending transitions in autonomous vehicle tech, and we aimed to put the most relevant facts together for business leaders and auto enthusiasts alike.   

First, we’ll break down what “self-driving” means (in its 5 different levels of autonomy). The rest of the article will be an ordered list of the 11 top automakers, followed by their predictions, executive quotes, and any noteworthy financial data about their self-driving initiatives.   

Defining “Self-Driving” in Levels   

“Self-driving” is a rather vague term with a vague meaning. For this article, we’ll be referencing the “self-driving levels” as defined by the SAE International  

Level 1 automation some small steering or acceleration tasks are performed by the car without human intervention, but everything else is fully under human control  

Level 2 automation is like advance cruise control or original autopilot system on some Tesla vehicles, the car can automatically take safety actions but the driver needs to stay alert at the wheel.   

Level 3 automation still requires a human driver, but the human is able to put some “safety-critical functions” to the vehicle, under certain traffic or environmental conditions. This poses some potential dangers as humans pass the major tasks of driving to or from the car itself, which is why some car companies (Ford included) are interested in jumping directly to level 4.   

Level 4 automation is a car that can drive itself almost all the time without any human input, but might be programmed not to drive in unmapped areas or during severe weather. This is a car you could sleep in.   

Level 5 automation means full automation in all conditions.   Since these levels don’t mean much to people outside the industry, car makers often don’t talk about their technology in these specific SAE terms. The big potential promise for people is either car that drive themselves for a large part of a person’s highway commute (level 3) or cars that can drive themselves almost as long as you live in a covered metropolitan area (level 4).   As you read the rest of this article, it will be useful to understand that most executives referring to “self-driving” are referring to levels 3 and 4. Whenever possible, we distinguish between what kind of self-driving a specific executive is speaking about (i.e. Highway autonomy, or full metropolitan autonomy).   

GM – Rumors of Self-Driving by 2018   

In 2016, GM spent $581 million to acquire self-driving car start-up, Cruise Automation. And this month GM announced they’re building a new research and development facility for Cruise Automation and adding 1,100 new jobs.   

Unlike other big car makers, GM has not laid out a specific timeline for their self-driving cars but they’ve made it clear they are moving aggressively. In December GM CEO Marry Barra wrote, “We expect to be the first high-volume auto manufacturer to build fully autonomous vehicles in a mass-production assembly plant.” The focus will be ride-sharing first over the individual buyer.   

According to Reuters, GM is rumored to have plans to deploy thousands of self-driving electric cars next year with its ride-sharing affiliate Lyft Inc. GM spent $500 million to buy part 9 percent stake in Lyft as part of its strategy to create an integrated network of on-demand autonomous vehicles. Making mobility as a service the first use of GM self-driving cars has several clear advantages. It means these cars will only need to be programmed to operate in a limited geographic area. The significant external hardware additions needed for autonomous systems in cars might also turn away average car buyers in favor of something more traditional and pleasing to the eye.   

Ford – True Self-Driving by 2021   

In February, Ford announced it is going to be investing $1 billion in Argo AI. The robotics company was created by former Google and Uber leaders. Ford plans to combine the expertise of Argo AI with Ford’s existing self-driving car efforts to have a “fully autonomous vehicle” coming in 2021. The first place these vehicles will be used by Ford is for ride hailing applications.   

Ford Motor CEO Mark Fields told CNBC that Ford plans to have a “Level 4 vehicle in 2021, no gas pedal, no steering wheel, and the passenger will never need to take control of the vehicle in a predefined area.” Ford actually plans to skip right over Level 3 automation and go straight to Level 4. In their testing Ford’s Chief Technology Officer Raj Nair, found that level 3 automation would lead to their engineers dozing off and not being situationally ready to take over when called on. Ford CEO Mark Fields claims that they will have cars with no gas pedal and no steering wheel driving people around in certain cities by 2021.   

Readers who are interested in how regulation and technology might affect the jump from level 3 and level 4 automation may want to listen to our autonomous driving interview with Nexar CEO Eran Shir.   

Honda – Self-Driving on the Highway by 2020 

At the end of last year Honda announced it was in discussions with Waymo, an independent company of Alphabet Inc., to include Waymo self-driving technology in their vehicles.   

The long-stated goal of Honda is to have cars that can at least drive themselves on highways by 2020. That is when Tokyo will host the Summer Olympics, and Japan hopes to make it a showcase of their technological prowess.   

Waymo isn’t the only tech company to partner with car giants. Expect similar acquisitions and partnerships with other autonomous tech innovators like AImotive and Nauto, both of whom are listed under our robotics and vehicles company list.   

Toyota – Self-Driving on the Highway by 2020   

Toyota has been one of the car companies most skeptical about autonomous vehicles, but in 2015 they made a big investment to catch up. Toyota is investing $1 billion over five years in the Toyota Research Institute to develop robotics and AI technology. Toyota hopes to launch products based on their Highway Teammate programs in 2020. This would also be just in time for the Tokyo Olympics.   

Gill Pratt, the CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, believes “none of us in the automobile or IT industries are close to achieving true Level 5 autonomy, we are not even close.” He does, though, believe that it is very likely a number of companies will within a decade have Level 4 cars operating in specific areas, which would be very useful to ride-sharing companies.   

Renault-Nissan – 2020 for Autonomous Cars in Urban Conditions, 2025 for Truly Driverless Cars   

Renault-Nissan is counting on their new partnership with Microsoft to help advance their autonomous car efforts. Renault-Nissan plans to release 10 different self-driving cars by 2020.   

CEO Carlos Ghosn told TechCrunch, “So we know that autonomy is something of high interest for the consumers. This is the first brick — one-lane highway. Then you’re going to have multi-lane highway, and then you’re going to have urban driving. All of these steps are going to come before 2020. […] 2020 for the autonomous car in urban conditions, probably 2025 for the driverless car.”   

Volvo – Self-Driving on the Highway by 2021   

Volvo is betting that self-driving cars will change both the ride-sharing industry and the luxury car market. Last year Volvo entered into a $300 million joint venture with Uber to develop next generation autonomous driving cars. Volvo is providing the physical vehicles for Uber’s self-driving tests.   

Volvo CEO Hakan Samuelsson said in an interview, “It’s our ambition to have a car that can drive fully autonomously on the highway by 2021.” He envisions that full autopilot would be a highly enticing option on premium vehicles and at first would cost $10,000.   

Volvo has already taken steps to avoid some of the consumer concern and legal issues that could slow the development of self-driving vehicles. In 2015 Volvo became the first car company to promise to accept full liability whenever one of its cars are in autonomous mode.   

Hyundai – Highway 2020, Urban Driving 2030   Hyundai is working on self-driving vehicles but with more of a focus on affordability. In an announcement Hyundai claims it is, “developing its own autonomous vehicle operating system, with the goal of using a lot less computing power. This will result in a low-cost platform, which can be installed in future Hyundai models the average consumer can afford.”   

Hyundai senior research engineer Byungyong You told Drive, “We are targeting for the highway in 2020 and urban driving in 2030.”  To achieve this goal Hyundai is investing 2 trillion won ($1.7 billion) and hiring over 3,000 employees for its self-driving car program.   

Daimler – Nearly Fully Autonomous by Early 2020’s 

At the beginning of the year Daimler announced a deal with Uber to introduce their self-driving cars on Uber’s ride-share platform in the coming years. Like several other car makers Daimler view mobility as a service as a logical place to first use self-driving cars.   

Daimler also announced this month a high-profile development agreement with Bosch, one of the largest parts suppliers. The goal is to bring both level 4 and level 5 autonomous vehicles to urban “by the beginning of the next decade.” This announcement came less than a month after Bosch announced their own collaboration with chip maker Nvidia to develop self-driving systems.   

Ola Källenius, Daimler’s new head of development, expects large-scale commercial production to take off between 2020 and 2025.   

It’s likely that Daimler’s current best-known autonomous vehicle project has been it’s “Freightliner Inspiration Truck” which is the first of its kind of be permitted to drive autonomously along Nevada’s highways.   

Fiat-Chrysler – CEO expects there to be some self-driving on the road by 2021   

Fiat-Chrysler also teamed up with Waymo last year to test some self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans.   

The experience has convinced Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne that self-driving cars are farther along that he once thought. He suspects that they could be on the road in five years. He did not say whether he expects his company to have self-driving cars by then though.   

BMW – Fully self-driving possible by 2021   Last year BMW announced a high profile collaboration with Intel and Mobileye to develop autonomous cars. Officially the goal is to get “highly and fully automated driving into series production by 2021.”   

Elmar Frickenstein, BMW’s senior vice president for autonomous driving, said that they should have Level 3 cars by that deadline but it is possible they could even deliver cars with Level 4 or 5 capacity in 2021. Whether that capacity would be implemented depends on regulatory and infrastructure concerns.   

Tesla – End of 2017   

As a smaller startup car maker, Tesla has always focused on pushing the edge of technology. Last year Tesla began making sure all their cars had the hardware needed for full self-driving capabilities even before the software/data was ready. Tesla constantly updates its car’s software to improve safety.   

Tesla cars already have enhanced autopilot, but in January Elon Musk said on Twitter that Tesla’s “full self-driving capability” will start noticeably departing from mere autopilot within 3-6 months.   

Musk has predicted that by the end of this year a Telsa will be able to drive from Los Angeles to New York City without a human touching the wheel.   

Concluding Thoughts for the Business of Autonomous Vehicles 

As a whole, the industry expects that we will see a significant number of cars with some self-driving capacity on the road by the early 2020’s, with the first vehicles mostly being luxury cars or part of commercial fleets.   

There are two important considerations when looking at car company predictions. First, there are a lot of reasons for companies to be slightly overly optimistic, including: Generating national or company pride, earning media attention, boosting engineer recruiting efforts, and appeal to investors. They are few incentives, meanwhile, to be publicly pessimistic. A savvy business reader should always bear this in mind.

The other consideration is that self-driving adoption timelines depend heavily on the regulatory developments in the next few years. Autonomous vehicles require both the right legal and technological frameworks. There is serious liability concerns when machines operate themselves in a potentially dangerous environment. Obviously, a car company doesn’t have much incentive to mass produce a true self-driving car if there is nowhere they can legally drive, or if the legal liability they bear would be considered too risky.   

Even with a heavy degree of skepticism, it seems likely that if you live in a major city you will be able to hail some form of automatic car ride in less than a decade. AI is becoming more and more a part of everyday life and automobiles are no exception.   

Reference List of Public Deals, Investment, and Acquisitions for Autonomous Vehicles   Below is a selection of some of the biggest transactions and deals in self-driving tech. For readers interested in specific carmakers, or in the direction of the autonomous vehicle market at large, these resources may prove to be a useful jump-off point for future research:   

  • Ford $1 billion investment in Argo AI
  • Toyota $1 billion investment in Toyota Research Institute
  • GM $581 million to acquire self-driving car start-up, Cruise Automation.
  • GM $500 million investment in Lyft
  • Volvo $300 joint venture with Uber
  • Intel $250 million of additional new investments over the next two years to make fully autonomous driving a reality.
  • Uber $680 million to purchase Otto
  • Intel $15.3 billion to buy Mobileye
  • Hyundai $1.7 billion in R&D

Jon Walker covers broad trends at the intersection of AI and industry for Emerj. He has reported on politics and policy issues for news organizations including National Memo, Massroots, NBC, and is a published science fiction author.