Self-driving car timeline for 11 top automakers

A company by company examination of public investments by leading car makers and statements from their top executives makes it clear that most car companies are betting self-driving technology is inevitable, and they’re all jumping in with investment and initiatives.

With billions of dollars in R&D and acquisitions, there’s plenty of fodder for media hype, but there haven’t been many concerted efforts to answer fundamental questions such as:

  • What do companies like Ford, GM, BMW and others have as their self-driving car timelines?
  • What have the major automakers invested in their self-driving initiatives, in terms of internal investment and acquisitions?

In this article, we set out to collect the facts and compile CEO quotes to determine the self-driving timelines of the world’s 11 largest automakers. Many businesses and industries will be impacted by the impending transitions in autonomous vehicle tech, and our aim is to put the most relevant facts together for business leaders and auto enthusiasts alike.

First, we’ll break down what “self-driving” means (there are five levels of autonomy). Then we’ll present an ordered list of the 11 top automakers, followed by their predictions, executive quotes, and any noteworthy financial data about their self-driving initiatives.

Defining “self-driving” by level

“Self-driving” is a rather vague term. For this article, we’ll be referencing the “self-driving levels” as defined by the SAE International. These can be viewed below:

  • Level 1 automation: some small steering or acceleration tasks are performed by the car without human intervention, but everything else is fully under human control
  • Level 2 automation: like advance cruise control or original autopilot systems on some Tesla vehicles, the car can automatically take safety actions but the driver needs to stay alert at the wheel
  • Level 3 automation: still requires a human driver, but the human is able to hand some “safety-critical functions” off to the vehicle under certain traffic or environmental conditions. This poses some potential dangers as the major tasks of driving are transferred to or from the car itself, which is why some car companies (Ford included) are interested in jumping directly to level 4
  • Level 4 automation: a car that can drive itself almost all the time without any human input but might be programmed not to drive in unmapped areas or during severe weather. This is a car you could sleep in.
  • Level 5 automation: full automation in all conditions

Since these levels don’t mean much to people outside the industry, car makers often don’t talk about their technology in these specific SAE terms. 

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