Google vs. Tesla vs. Ford: Who Has the Best Self-Driving Car to Get You Home Safely?

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: GOOGL  ) 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.


Source: Wikimedia Commons, Google autonomous car and Tesla model S

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.

Tesla Model S

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.

Source: Wikimedia Commons, Ford Fusion Hybrid

"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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  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2013, at 6:56 PM, GaryDMN wrote:

    Google is not even in the running. They do everything loosely with open source software and their solution won't be finely tuned to the actual components, auto manufactures have full control over. Then there are the legal liabilities that open source is vulnerable to. Google is an advertising company, after all.

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2013, at 8:01 PM, weaponz wrote:

    First of all, Tesla plans to make semi automatic driving cars. Not fully automatic. But it will play a huge role in getting people to accept self driving cars.

    The one who is most likely to deliver the tech is Google. Since they have gotten the farthest out of anyone.

    @GaryDMN - You have 0 clue what you are talking about. First of all, no one said if the self driving car software is open or closed source. Even if it runs on top of an open source system, the actual components are probably proprietary.

    Second of all, open source software is the easiest to tune since you have access to the source code. And open source software is not liable to any legal liabilities. That is a myth.

    Here is a fun fact, most car infotainment systems are actually open source.

  • Report this Comment On December 22, 2013, at 8:56 PM, whatafool wrote:

    @GaryDMN - You have absolutely no idea what your talking about. Google has been doing this for years. Do a quick search and see what you can find. They are way ahead of the game. If anyone is going to drive me home safely I believe Google will do the job.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2013, at 1:44 AM, Phrontrowalpine wrote:

    Sorry, but only one of these companies CEO's has a rocket that can take off, fly around, and land exactly where it took off from. That's autonomy. Elon Musk and Tesla maay be a little ahead.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2013, at 9:52 AM, VictoriaTec wrote:

    There are three layers to any automatic pilot system. Having a target and a beacon greatly simplifies any flight options. Road conditions, signal flux in GPS, reaction processing (dealing with humans), and other variables complicate road performance. Honeybee robotics and other longtime development boutiques in unmanned space exploration have an edge in a lot of the adaptive software technologies that any of the larger players will want to use. So will applications in military assisted systems interface where industry leaders like John Chen first surfaced (now heading RIM). It's a much more complicated field than this report conveys.

    I can give 1,000 examples. But, here's two: I'm driving down an empty suburban road. A ball rolls out onto the road ahead of me (compared to a piece of newspaper blowing across the road). . . or, I see a fawn at the side of the road frozen in my headlights motionless (versus a lawn sculpture of one made of polyester). Cognition of potential dynamic hazards are one edge manned systems still have in potential dynamic hazard scenarios.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2013, at 1:32 PM, normgarry wrote:

    Self Driving cars will NEVER become a reality.

    #1 the state makes revenue TICKETING PEOPLE and you can't ticket a robot that "self operates".

    #2 Without artificial intelligence, a computer isn't smart enough to operate in ALL conditions and can't be held responsible if it malfunctions and people die as a result.

    If I had to make a sudden choice between hitting a baby in the street or swerving and hitting a tree, would the computer be able to make that choice?

    Could I get in a car stone drunk and ask it to take me home?

    Our GPS systems malfunction all the time and put us on wrong courses. Who's to say that couldn't happen with a robocar?

    I've seen Google's self driving cars. They're a joke and Mercedes had the same technology in its S-class 10 years ago. Audi has cars that can search for parks and park themselves.

    By the time computers are smart enough to handle one of the most dangerous tasks in everyday life, we'll all be replaced by them and won't be able to afford one. The movie IROBOT never explained WHERE PEOPLE WORK when the NX5 robots are everywhere DID IT?

    NOPE.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2013, at 1:33 PM, normgarry wrote:

    Self Driving cars will become the norm the day right after they build affordable FLYING CARS. Which is to say: NEVER.

  • Report this Comment On December 23, 2013, at 1:57 PM, thosmart21 wrote:

    I couldn't agree more with the above comments. Google can't even get past a few hours of driving without some human intervention to make some configuration change / update. The NTSB requires 50 million hours of uninterrupted operation. Driverless cars in the near future or even ever....not likely. How about keeping vehicles that travel on dedicated tracks like trains from derailing and crashing.

    Adaptive cruise control and even networked cruise control between vehicles - now we are talking reality.

  • Report this Comment On December 24, 2013, at 6:16 AM, hunter3203 wrote:

    First off, Tesla isn't even in the running on this technology. They posted a job opening on Twitter for someone to develop autonomous cars and everyone reported it like they already had such cars running around in development.

    More than likely we'll see this technology roll out in pieces and that's already started. Automated braking, lane departure control, smart cruise control, self parking, etc. Each brings a piece of the puzzle and as costs come down and the features become commonplace people will become more comfortable giving up those aspects of driving. Who wouldn't want to go into a self-drive mode during bumper to bumper traffic? You could take a nap or actually focus on getting some work done, etc. The same for a long trip on the interstate.

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