A recent report compiled by research provider IHS Markit forecasts that there will be 33 million driverless cars on the roads by 2040, with sales expected to hit critical mass in 2021, when 51,000 such vehicles are expected to be sold. The autonomous car revolution isn't too far off, and investors would do well to keep a close watch on the leading players in this industry to take advantage.

This is where Navigant Research's recently compiled chart of 19 companies developing automated driving systems comes to our aid. The report outlines tech giant Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Waymo and the combine of Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), BMW (OTC:BAMXF), and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (NYSE:FCAU) among the leaders in driverless cars.

Let's see why these companies could be the best bets for investors in self-driving cars.

A person reading a book while behind the wheel of a moving self-driving car.

Image Source: Getty Images.

Alphabet's Waymo

Alphabet's Waymo leads the field when it comes to driverless cars, having racked up over 4 million self-driven miles on roads by the end of November last year. A closer look reveals that Waymo's self-driving car development has picked up impressively of late, with its latest 1 million autonomous miles clocked in just six months.

By comparison, Waymo took six years to complete its first million miles, indicating that it has put its learning from both virtual and on-road testing to good use. Waymo's driverless cars are known to have the lowest disengagement rate (when a human driver has to take over control) when compared to the rest of the field, so it is not surprising to see it is one of the first projects ready to commercialize its technology on a large scale.

In all, Waymo has tested its driverless cars in seven states in the U.S., and it claims to have "the world's first fleet of fully self-driving cars on public roads." It is now working on the monetization part.

Waymo has reportedly ordered thousands of Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans, which will make their way into cities where the company has been testing driverless cars. The details are sketchy, but this could be a big deal as Waymo is seemingly on its way to provide driverless ride-sharing services in 25 cities.

The ride-sharing market is expected to grow eightfold to $285 billion by 2030, according to Goldman Sachs, and Waymo could make big money if it can get a small slice of this space.

The Intel-BMW-Fiat alliance

Intel has put itself in a prime position to take advantage of self-driving cars by creating a strong alliance of automotive and technology partners. Fiat Chrysler, for instance, is working with Chipzilla to create a system that could support Level 3 autonomy and upward in self-driving cars.

Fiat Chrysler sold over 2 million vehicles in just the U.S. last year. And Intel will have the chance to move its autonomous-driving chips in large numbers thanks to Fiat Chrysler's intention of putting driverless cars on roads by 2021.

Both Fiat and Intel are providing hardware to Waymo to enable its self-driving technology. Last year, Intel revealed that it has been supplying a host of technologies to Waymo to power crucial self-driving functions.

Meanwhile, BMW and Intel have long been in a partnership to develop driverless cars. The German carmaker is looking to push the boundaries as it plans to showcase a fully electric, autonomous vehicle later this year that's capable of going 435 miles on a single charge. This new car will be based on Intel and Mobileye chips, and will form the basis of BMW's future self-driving cars.

It looks like BMW is taking aim at Tesla with this new electric vehicle, promising a substantially longer range and possibly better autonomous driving technology, as Elon Musk's company ranks at the bottom in Navigant's rating of driverless car developers. This solid combination could help BMW and Intel make a big impact in an electric vehicle market that's expected to clock annual growth rates of over 21% through 2026.

The Foolish bottom line

The driverless car market is getting ready to boom. It would be wise for investors to keep an eye on these companies as they have already made notable moves in this space to monetize their technology, though it would be wrong to expect quick gains.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.