A pre-CES 2017 look at the state of autonomous vehicles

The race to autonomous or self-driving cars is on. 2016 was the year that we not only lost some of our most beloved artists, we also witnessed startups and automakers put the pedal to the metal to get the attention of industry influencers, experts and consumers around the world.

Google announced Waymo, its official foray into the autonomous space. Uber ambitiously defied the California DMV and launched a self-driving ride/hail pilot in San Francisco. Tesla pushed the boundaries with an early form of autonomous driving with AutoPilot. General Motors acquired Cruise, a robotics startup, for a whopping $1 billion. And, the list goes on.

See also: The fight is on for the $560b self-driving car market

I’m a car guy. I grew up in a time when cars were part of your identity. They represented who you were and also who you wanted to be or the idea of who you wanted others to see. But, that was my generation. Now cars are more than commodities to the mainstream, they’re trinkets to always-on lifestyles. Owning them takes a backseat to ordering them on demand.

Whether they’re driven or self-driven is increasingly moot. But for those who drive, I mean those who drive because they either love it or because they have to, autonomous cars represent a quandary at the very least. Will people buy or use cars where humans aren’t fully in control? The reality is that self-driving cars are inevitable and yet many stand at an intersection where some people “can’t wait” for them and others wonder whether robocars “will ever happen.”

But where are we really in the race to self-driving cars? That’s a quest that I set out to discover this year. I tracked 22 automakers and 34 hardware and software companies to better understand the varying players and how they each played a role in the evolving ecosystem. The result is a new report that’s available for download today, “The State of Autonomous Vehicles: A ‘Who’s Who’ of Industry Drivers.” It was released in beta format ahead of CES to provide a helpful primer of the self-driving ecosystem and also invite feedback to include companies I unintentionally missed or is expected to launch in 2017.

Are we there yet?

2021 is the year that automakers are pushing as the year that autonomous vehicles will hit the road.1 To what extent isn’t clear. But if I had to guess, I’d say it’s not the finish line, but a key milestone on the path toward autonomy.

After researching and revising the report so many times, I learned that to answer the question of when autonomous cars will be available isn’t the right question to ask. The real question is, to what extent will self-driving cars operate, when and where and how will that evolve over time?

With all the publicity in 2016 about self-driving cars, you’d think that they were already available on the market. Going back to CES 2016 and late 2015, I was invited by Mercedes-Benz to be a passenger in two different self-driving pilot vehicles (Intelligent Drive E-Class and S500 respectively). Those tests blew me away. While there’s still work to do, it’s incredible at just how far technology has come and how quickly it’s evolving. And, if you’ve ever driven (or been driven by) a Tesla in AutoPilot mode, the standard for self-driving, intelligence, safety and convenience only rises every day.

The technology is rapidly advancing. Everything from cameras, sensors and LiDARs (Light Detection and Ranging) to machine learning and artificial intelligence and the engineers building and connecting everything together, self-driving cars are seeing and learning how to drive on their own. Plus, humans and machines are making notable progress every day.

For example Google (Waymo) has loggedmore than 3 million self-driving miles on the streets of Mountain View, Calif., Austin, Texas, Kirkland, Wash., and Metro Phoenix to date. Of those miles, more than 700,000 have been accident free. And, 10,000 rides have safely carried Googlers and guests without the capacity for a human being to take the wheel because there is no steering wheel to grab.

At the same time, government regulation and city infrastructure are rapidly changing to meet operating and safety requirements. Cities around the world are facilitating public testing of self-driving cars, under specific conditions, where automakers, mobility services and technology vendors can test and learn while city engineers and planners identify weaknesses and opportunities to optimize and secure smart, connected cities.

The race to 2021

Yes, the race to 2021 is on. However, there will be no clear winner as there is no finish line.

What’s clear is that incumbents and startups are vying to redefine the future of transportation and mobility. To accelerate autonomy, automakers are investing in innovation and R&D centers around the world. Cities are partnering with ecosystem players to modernize regulation. Startups are being funded to develop new possibilities.  And new companies are forming in stealth mode every week to push forward next generation technologies such as advanced computer vision sensors (Chronocam), mobility services (Zoox), development platforms (PolySync), deep learning (DeepScale), deep neural networks, robotics (CANVAS), advanced 3D mapping (Luminar Technologies), and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) systems. In fact, since launching the report on the state of autonomous vehicles, I’ve already started to add another dozen companies.

This is getting exciting and overwhelming.

The very idea of what a car is and what it will be is evolving into something that’s aesthetically familiar but far more intelligent. More so, the very idea of what a car is, what it does, how it’s designed inside and out, and even how it’s financed, owned and insured are also set for disruption. As companies progress from Level 0 (no autonomous capabilities) to Level 4/5 (completely self-driving) cars, consumers will have access to incremental innovation that not only introduces intelligent new features and capabilities but also eases them into the idea of robots driving humans.

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