For investors looking to profit from the nascent field of self-driving cars, the amount of information available is mind-boggling. Market-intelligence company CB Insights has identified a whopping 44 corporations working on autonomous vehicles, a list that includes automakers, tier-1 parts suppliers, ride-hailing services, and big tech companies -- and that doesn't even include start-ups. With that many players developing cars that drive autonomously, how should investors proceed?

Navigant Research has released "Leaderboard Report: Automated Driving," which takes a somewhat novel approach to the subject, assessing a wide range of criteria and has assembled a list of traditional automakers that you might not consider at the forefront of autonomous driving. Since this provides a fresh perspective, three companies best poised to benefit from this growing trend are Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F), General Motors Company (NYSE:GM), and the strategic alliance between Renault (OTC:RNSDF) and Nissan Motor Corporation (OTC:NSANY).

Navigant Research Leaderboard showing Ford, GM, and Renault-Nissan Alliance as leaders in automated driving systems.

These three automakers are leaders in the path to autonomous driving. Image source: Navigant Research.

3. Renault-Nissan Alliance

The strategic alliance between France's Renault and Japan's Nissan made the list by virtue of its ProPILOT autonomous-drive technology. The system is the first in Japan to combine steering, braking, and acceleration into one integrated package. ProPILOT employs a single front-facing camera and image-processing software to control the distance between itself and the preceding vehicle while maintaining a predetermined speed chosen by the driver. It will also keep the car in the center of the chosen lane of traffic, even on curvy roads. The system can react to obstructions by bringing the car to a complete stop and remaining in place until the driver reengages the system. 

The companies have already made the technology available in select vehicles in Japan and plan to release the system in Europe in 2017, followed by the U.S. and Chinese markets. The alliance plans continuous upgrades to its system, which it expects to be fully autonomous by 2020.

2. General Motors

General Motors Company is already testing a self-driving version of its electric Chevy Bolt on public roads. The fleet of more than 50 cars is tooling around the roads of San Francisco, Detroit, and Scottsdale, Arizona.

GM announced its entry into the autonomous fray in October 2015 and furthered its ambitions with the acquisition of Cruise Automation for $581 million in March 2016. The company has also invested $500 million in ride-hailing start-up Lyft with an eye toward creating a network of self-driving cars. GM recently announced that it had completed a production run of 130 additional autonomous cars, making it the first automaker to mass-produce self-driving cars. These vehicles will join the test fleet for additional road miles.

The cars have been outfitted with the most recent version of GM's system, which includes multiple cameras, 40 different sensors, and a LiDAR (light detection and ranging) system that uses pulsing light to map the surrounding area.

Ford Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Vehicle.

Ford takes the top spot for automakers preparing for a driverless future. Image source: Ford.

1. Ford

Ford has taken the step of creating a new "Robotics and AI Research" team. It's also made multiple strategic investments in emerging technology companies in support of its autonomous-driving efforts. Navigant Research notes that Ford was an early participant in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Grand Challenge program, with an entry that was developed in-house, while others partnered with leading universities.

Ford and Baidu jointly invested $150 million in Velodyne, the leader in LiDAR systems, to develop and produce a more affordable line of the sensors. Ford also acquired artificial intelligence start-up SAIPS, a company focused on developing the computer vision and machine learning necessary to run the autonomous vehicles. Ford was also part of a group that invested $6.6 million in Civil Maps, a 3D-mapping start-up focused on the high-resolution maps the systems use to navigate. Ford entered into an exclusive licensing agreement with Nirenberg Neuroscience, a machine-vision company that developed a platform to assist with navigation and object recognition. 

Ford's largest investment in autonomous driving was the $1 billion to acquire a majority stake in AI start-up Argo AI, paid out over a period of five years. The company is using its expertise to develop the software that will be the brains in Ford's self-driving cars, which it plans to bring to market by 2021.

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