Make no mistake, driverless cars are on their way. By 2035, about 10% of all new light vehicles sold globally will be fully autonomous (as in, they can drive themselves around without any human interaction), and some estimates predict we'll see them much sooner.
And while carmakers and technology companies are making a lot of progress in driverless autos, there's still plenty of time for investors to get in on one of the largest industry shifts in automotive history.
NVIDIA (NVDA -4.20%), Alphabet's (GOOG -0.27%) (GOOGL -0.21%) Google, NXP Semiconductors N.V. (NXPI -1.31%), Baidu (BIDU 1.86%) and Tesla Motors (TSLA 1.24%) are all companies that are making big strides in driverless car technology.
Google's driverless head start
Most investors are pretty familiar with Google's leadership in the driverless car space. The company's already logged over 1.5 million miles with its autonomous cars and has driverless prototypes on the the road in five states. It also has a huge lobbying presence and has advocated for looser driverless car laws to Congress.
But the company's most important driverless car move came recently with its deal with Fiat Chrysler to use its autonomous car technology in 100 of Pacifica minivans. That marks Google's first official deal with an automaker to bring its driverless tech to the road.
- Advantages: Google has a clear first mover advantage and has been working on driverless car tech for years. It also has a massive amount of data on its users, and that could be very beneficial when autonomous cars become pervasive and start suggesting where we should go. Google has always used its data collection to serve up better advertisements, and knowing where we go and when we go there could certainly improve the company's targeted ads.
- Drawbacks: Any early revenue from Google's driverless technology isn't likely to effect the company's bottom line all that much. Alphabet's simply too big for sales of its driverless car technology to impact the company and we don't yet know if (or how much) it will charge automakers to use its technology.
NVIDIA's artificially intelligent approach
NVIDA is tackling driverless technology head on with what it does best: using powerful graphics processing units (GPUs) to fuel its technology.
The company is already on its second generation of driverless car computing system, Drive PX 2, and 80 automakers and Tier 1 automotive suppliers are already using or testing the system.
Drive PX 2 is essentially like adding an artificially intelligent (AI) supercomputer into the trunk of a driverless car, and one that can learn based on past experiences. To top it all off, the company also has a cloud-based supercomputer that Drive PX can link up with to create an even more powerful driverless car system for automakers.
- Advantages: It's impressive the company is already on its second-generation driverless system, but the real benefit could come from carmakers using the company's GPUs to run powerful AI driverless systems. NVIDIA could drive sales of its GPUs, if it can convince automakers to adopt its driverless technology.
- Drawbacks: The Drive PX 2 computer isn't a complete driverless system, which means automakers have to fuse NVIDIA's driverless brains with components and sensors from other manufacturers. That's not all bad, but NXP Semiconductor just released an off-the-shelf system that does (see below). Also, the company only made about 6% of its total fiscal Q1 2017 revenue from automotive sales. It's growing this segment quickly, but revenue still trail far behind its core gaming business.
NXP Semiconductors' box of driverless goodies
NXP is already a leader in automotive technology and has shipped 30 million advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) processors to date. ADAS features server as the stepping stones to fully autonomous cars and NXP already supplies the processors to eight of the 10 largest automakers.
But the company also just made a huge move into driverless technology with the recent release of its BlueBox system. BlueBox includes the processors, software, sensors, and other components for highly automated driverless cars (at an SAE Level 4), essentially allowing automakers to create a driverless car right off the shelf.
- Advantages: The company says BlueBox will help automakers release driverless cars by 2020. That time frame is critical to automakers as semi-autonomous and autonomous cars are quickly advancing. But the real advantage for NXP is that it is already the leading supplier of silicon to automotive companies (in part because of its recent purchase of Freescale Semiconductor). NXP earned 36% of its Q1 2016 revenue from the automotive market and its lead in the industry should benefit BlueBox sales to automakers.
- Drawbacks: NXP and its competitors could be hampered by U.S. regulation. The company's goal of helping automakers release driverless cars in just four years may be a bit ambitious. Overall, though, its driverless ambitions look very promising.
Tesla's ambitious autonomous goals
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said that his company will release a car that can be summoned by its owner all the way across the country and drive itself there to pick them up all on its own by 2018 (though he has also admitted that time frame may be a bit optimistic).
In any case, Tesla's current Autopilot feature, which allows its vehicles to drive themselves on the highway, is one of the most advanced semi-autonomous features available right now. And its Summon feature allows its cars to enter or exit a garage and park themselves, all without the driver in the car.
- Advantages: Tesla's Autopilot is already one of the most advanced on the road, giving it a head start over other carmakers. The company does a great job of offering its customers a superior driving experience along with the option of letting the car drive itself -- and not many automakers can make that claim.
- Drawbacks: While Tesla's been quick to release new semi-autonomous features, it could be argued that it releases them too quickly. The company's summon feature has been released to the public despite the face that it's still in "beta" mode. The idea of releasing self-driving elements before they're perfected could be problematic in the long run.
Baidu's tapping into China's desire for driverless autos
The China-based tech giant has committed to bringing driverless car technology to China's public transportation system by 2018.
The company's already tested its vehicles on Beijing's highways and its cars have merged into traffic and overtaken other vehicles on the highway all by themselves. It is also in the process of testing driverless autos on U.S. roads.
And just recently, the Chinese city of Wuhu said it will allow Baidu's driverless vans and buses to roam around its city (unoccupied) as part of a fiver-year plan to test its autonomous driving technology.
- Advantages: The clearest advantage for Baidu is that the company has the support of the Chinese government and isn't as impeded by government regulation as companies in the U.S. That's allowing it to quickly expand its driverless car tests and why Wuhu will see driverless cars without occupants (something the U.S. strictly forbids) roaming its roads soon. The company also owns a substantial number of driverless car patents, which it could sell to other companies and earn royalties from.
- Drawbacks: Like Google, Baidu's driverless car technology is just a very small piece of a larger tech puzzle. Any advancements right now aren't likely to add to the company's bottom line, and Baidu still doesn't have a clear vision for how it will make money from autonomous vehicles.
Boston Consulting Group estimates that the driverless car market will be worth $42 billion by 2025, which means investors looking to make a move now will be doing so just before one of the most disruptive times in automotive history.