From tech heavyweights to auto upstarts, companies from every walk of industry are developing autonomous car technology these days. It's only a matter of time until self-driving cars become as commonplace as SUVs. However, when it comes to the autonomous future of transportation, what's less clear is whose technology will rein supreme. For most people, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) is the first company that comes to mind.
It's no secret that Google was one of the first to popularize the idea of a driverless car. In fact, Google's self-driving vehicles have logged more than a half-million miles on the road, since first entering the public eye in 2010. Though, to be fair, General Motors (NYSE: GM ) developed the first prototype for driverless cars in the late 1950s with its Firebird III. Using radio signals emitted from an electrical cable, the concept car was able to pick up radio signals and follow the cable around a test track.
Technology has come a long way since then. Not to mention, Google and General Motors face much more competition in developing such technology today. It's in this spirit that we'll take a closer look at two lesser-known rivals in the race to master driverless car technology: Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA ) and Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F )
Look, ma, no hands!
Hands-free driving is already here. Now it is a race to see who can hone the technology so that it's road ready. Tesla Motors is one company that's taking an interesting approach to the concept of self-driving cars. The electric-vehicle maker says it's working on a more affordable way to produce driverless cars using special radar and tiny flush-mounted cameras. Tesla's CEO, Elon Musk, says Google's method of using laser tracking systems mounted to the car's roof is too expensive. "It's better to have an optical system, basically cameras with software that is able to figure out what's going on just by looking at things," Musk explained.
Tesla plans to use in-house technology to develop what it says will be a sort of autopilot system for its cars. "Self-driving sounds like it's going to do something you don't want it to do. Autopilot is a good thing to have in planes, and we should have it in cars," Musk explained in an interview with Bloomberg. This could be a winning strategy for Tesla, particularly because most drivers aren't yet comfortable with the idea of giving up total control to a machine.
In fact, just one out of every five drivers today is interested in driving autonomous cars, according to a recent U.S. Automotive Emerging Technologies study by J.D. Power. Yet, if anyone knows how to shake up people's perceptions it is Tesla. The electric-car start-up is transforming the transportation industry one Model S driver at a time.
Tesla is certainly a disruptive innovator. However, Ford has a few advantages of its own when it comes to autonomous technology. For starters, Ford will be building on technology that already exists in many of its cars today, such as its fully assisted parking aid. Where Tesla is starting from the ground up, Ford is able to build on more than a decade of its own automated driving research.
One step forward for Ford
On top of Ford's existing technology that enables its cars to park themselves, detect dangerous driving conditions and assist with emergency braking, Ford has ambitious plans for its next generation of vehicles. Last week, the automaker announced strategic partnerships with the University of Michigan and insurance provider State Farm that promise to bring Ford one step closer to offering self-driving cars.
Together with its partners, Ford unveiled a prototype for an autonomous Ford Fusion Hybrid vehicle last week. The company says the new automated research vehicle will help it deliver an autonomous car by 2025. Yet, that timeline leaves a lot to be desired, particularly as Tesla promises to have its Model S autopilot ready by 2017.
"With the automated Ford Fusion Hybrid research project, our goal is to test the limits of full automation and determine the appropriate levels for near and mid-term deployment," said Raj Nair, Ford's VP of global product development.
By using the Ford Fusion Hybrid as the platform for developing its autonomous technology, Ford can take advantage of vehicle sensing systems, including blind spot information system, active park assist, lane-keeping alerts, and active city stop. This existing technology gives Ford a clear advantage over Tesla, who only recently began hiring engineers to help it pioneer fully automated driving.
On top of this, Ford said it plans to use scanning infrared light sensors, or LIDAR, to generate a three-dimensional map of the vehicle's surroundings in real time. LIDAR is also what Google's self-driving cars rely on to navigate the surrounding environment. However, if you remember, it is also technology that Tesla's Elon Musk says is too expensive and may not be feasible.
Nevertheless, Tesla is still in the very early stages of developing autonomous technology that would be camera-based as opposed to LIDAR-based. Therefore, LIDAR or no LIDAR, until Tesla has something to show for its autonomous ventures, it seems Ford currently holds the technological edge over the EV maker.
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